Peggy Noonan desperately tries to find something nice to say about John F. Kennedy, because he was assassinated and because he was the only Roman Catholic U.S. President:
Two small points. It is interesting that JFK was celebrated as the first modern president, the first truly hip president, and yet the parts of him we celebrate most are actually the old virtues. He lied to get into the military, not to get out of it. He was sick, claimed to be well, and served as a naval officer in the war. In the postwar years he was in fairly constant physical pain, but he got up every day and did his demanding jobs. He played hurt. He was from a big, seemingly close family and seemed very much the family man himself. What we liked most about him wasn’t hip.
And he was contained. He operated within his own physical space and was not florid or mawkish or creepily domineering in his physical aspect.
. . . . . .
He didn’t hug the other pols on the platform, he didn’t give a big man-hug to the others on the dais, he didn’t kiss everyone and point at the audience and give them a thumbs-up. He didn’t act, he just was. Like a grownup. Like a person with dignity. Like a person with public boundaries who is an actor but not a phony.
Seriously? I’d never call a serial (some would also say sociopathically predatory) womanizer “contained. . . within his own physical space.” In fact, “creepily domineering in his physical aspect” is exactly what I’d call him, given all of the stories that have come out about him in the past several years. To wit:
The well-supported story of Mimi Alford, a nineteen-year-old White House intern at the time of her involvement with JFK, is impossible to overlook. Initiated into JFK’s sexual world just four days into her internship, Alford lost her virginity to Kennedy as he conducted what can only be called a deeply inappropriate affair with a young charge; it even included a Kennedy-directed episode of oral sex with aide Dave Powers while Kennedy watched. This behavior, barely hidden from others within the White House and involving government resources to shuttle Alford to and from the traveling president, has caused some to question Kennedy’s basic fitness for the highest office.
More here. This is just one of dozens of well-documented incidents in which the president failed to act “like a grownup. Like a person with dignity. Like a person with public boundaries.” I’ll give Noonan this, though: she’s right when she says that Kennedy displays “the old virtues.” Droit du seigneur is very old school, if no longer celebrated by most as a “virtue.”
Also please note the fairly explicit fear of the Big Dog in Noonan’s fake nostalgia for JFK. That’s what that dig about lying to “get out of” military service is all about, not to mention the complaint about “florid or mawkish” presidents who are prone to deliver the “big man-hug.” Looks like we’re gonna party like it’s 1993 for the next three years!
10 thoughts on “JFK puts the zap on Peggy Noonan’s brain”
As a medievalist, I have to urge everyone to take note of the “putative” and “urban legend” in the Wikipedia entry. Lords taxed the marriages of their serfs, which is what gave rise to the notion of droit du seigneur, but I am not aware of any evidence that this was a real practice. Rather, it’s manufactured “evidence” that the Middle Ages were the “bad old days.” I suppose there’s a sort of link through the use of “Camelot” for the Kennedy White House, but I don’t think Arthur practiced it, either.
Fair enough, but the connection between military and political conquest and sexual conquest is robust througout human history. That’s the point I wanted to make.
Most democracies built a dividing wall between the politician and the politician’s sexual life, family life and similar peculiarities. By and large, it fits my values.
Using a nasty biblical phrase, everyone with “a running nose and a sliced genitalia” puts down Big Dawg. That wont help them, from LBJ, another President with huge accomplishments, to the current clown, Bill Clinton is a towering figure.
‘Most democracies built a dividing wall between the politician and the politician’s sexual life, family life and similar peculiarities.’
Do they? I’m not sure I know of one that does.
What’s interesting is that Noonan is celebrating the *public* face of Kennedy. And that’s all about the gap between appearance and reality. After all, our culture in the 60s was much more restrained – you shook hands, you did not hug. As a child, there were very few adults outside my family that I first named. It was all about appearances, and Kennedy did that well. There was a lot of pain in that world, shaped by the secrecy and lies, but it was from the outside much more proper. (This is why my mother couldn’t watch Mad Men – it was too close to home.
What’s interesting (to me at least) is the shift from letting the private be private, to wanting to know everything. As we feminists argued that the personal is political, that the two were not separate, our culture – with the help of gossip mags, cable news, and the web, has become more and more obsessed with the personal lives of politicians and celebrities. When did that start? Gary Hart? Or the posthumous Kennedy revelations? Whenever, it’s a huge cultural shift.
But if we go much bigger and say look at the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the private lives of politicians were not only big business but viewed as central to political questions – if in different ways. So the Restoration Court in the UK used sex to demonstrate their political power, as did Wilkes in the 1740s. The later 18thC used sexual scandal to provide political critique of aristocratic excess and sexual probity as a measure of political virtue. These critiques were very influential in Revolutionary America. So if it’s a cultural shift, we also need to explain the rise of the idea that privacy for politicians should be valued.
“So if it’s a cultural shift, we also need to explain the rise of the idea that privacy for politicians should be valued.”
It’s also an idea that is used very selectively, to defend politicians one favors. Some of the same people applying this idea to Bill Clinton or JFK were only too happy to slut-shame Bristol Palin with the justification that she did not deserve privacy once she made herself into a public figure.
There is also little differentiation between the kind of behavior that deserves privacy (i.e. consensual, harmless acts) or doesn’t (exploitative, abusive, and/or illegal acts).
Well, in fairness to the defenders of privacy for certain kinds of males, they don’t see behaviors such as John Kennedy’s or Bill Clinton’s as exploitative, abusive, or anything else negative. It all falls under the global accords governing the fair use of women (as Twisty would say).
FA is right of course: the early modern period saw family life/personal life as a model for the state, so relevant to it. And this was true from the crown (the distinction between James I’s court and Charles I’s)on down. So whatever happens in the early 20th C — from FDR to JFK, LBJ etc — starts some time in the 19th? Is that US only?
And I’m observing the difference, not approving. I do think the cultural shift is big, and interesting. But even when I don’t approve of someone’s behavior, I’m not sure whether that should shape political choices. My reading of what people have said is that both JFK and Clinton were/are men of enormous sexual energy/ charisma. But they also used that in exploitative ways. I’m not sure the extent to which that affects my evaluation of their presidencies. Can you be a despicable human being and a good president?
There are gains and losses from making the personal life of politicians public; as historians, we should be able to think about them both, and not push ourselves in to uncritical enthusiasm for either. For the last year I have observed a very messy semi-triangle at work, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what about people’s personal life is relevant for work, and what is not. It’s a line I struggle with, but I think it exists. I do think people — whether politicians or academics — can have messy or complicated personal lives and still do their jobs well.
Noonan like Dowd, Matthews, O’Donnell and the late Tim Russert is one of those aging-well, Russert is no longer aging-professional Irish pundits who worship Kennedy and loathe Clinton.
Why? Because the not our kind, darling, hillbilly rose to prominence on merit alone and made the whole damn thing work, unlike the best and brightest who ruined everything they touched, but did it oh so elegantly!
Hint: they worship “O’Bama”, too.