IT’S GETTING harder to ignore the wide gap between Camelot mythology and historical reality at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
The disconnect is especially pronounced as the library promotes its latest exhibit, a collection of Jacqueline Kennedy’s letters. It’s timed to the 50th anniversary of Mrs. Kennedy’s famous televised tour of the White House and comes just as a White House intern from that era reveals the details of a private tour that she received from President Kennedy.
That long-ago tour, writes author Mimi Alford, ended with the president deflowering the 19-year-old college girl on his wife’s bed. In her book, “Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath,’’ Alford declines to label their first sexual encounter as rape. As she describes it, while it was not “making love’’ it “was not non-consensual.’’
The rest of the book tells the story of a sexual affair that she said lasted more than a year. It includes an episode where the president suggests that she perform oral sex on Dave Powers, his longtime friend and close aide - and she does. According to Alford, she ultimately said no to doing the same for the president’s younger brother, Ted Kennedy. She last saw JFK shortly before he left for the November 1963 Dallas trip that ended with his assassination.
The basic veracity of Alford’s account has not been challenged. It had its genesis in a reference to the president’s favorite intern in the biography, “JFK: An Unfinished Life,’’ written by historian Robert Dallek. The New York Daily News tracked her down shortly afterward. Later, she decided to write her own story.
Alford’s lack of regret and willingness to cash in decades later are valid grounds for criticism. But her lurid tell-all also raises valid questions for the keepers of Kennedy’s flame. At what point does a presidential library stop marketing myth and start addressing reality?
The Kennedy Library has taken groundbreaking steps to digitize archives, allowing researchers access to long-secret documents, images, and recordings. But the library itself feels more like a mausoleum than a vibrant museum. It is frozen in time, circa 1960-63. The recreations of Kennedy’s political triumphs are effective and moving. But the gauzy presentations of Kennedy’s personal relationships do not ring true. How can they, when a recording of Mrs. Kennedy’s breathy White House tour plays in the background and you think about JFK pushing a young intern down on Jackie’s bed?
It’s not news that Kennedy had extramarital affairs. But the details of this one make an exhibit that features Mrs. Kennedy’s description of White House life with her husband and children as “the happiest time’’ look like a cruel joke.
Presidential libraries struggle to strike a balance between positive and negative legacy. A year ago, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened “The Watergate Gallery’’ as a permanent exhibition. The new exhibit features interactive screens, White House tapes and 131 taped interviews which replaced the narrative that Nixon approved when the library first opened in 1990. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the changes did not come without a fight from stalwarts of the 37th president.’’
The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, includes the name of Monica Lewinsky - another intern who had a sexual relationship with a president - in an alcove titled “The Fight for Power.’’ Told from Clinton’s perspective, it details the legal battles between Clinton, special counsel Kenneth Starr, and congressional Republicans.
“Presidential libraries are not about rewriting history. Presidential libraries are about preserving history and they reflect the good and the bad, the success and the failures and the victories and defeats,’’ the head of Clinton’s library foundation declared at its opening.
There will probably never be an exhibit at the Kennedy library devoted to the president’s mistresses. But there are issues about gender and power that could be explored. There is an upcoming library forum on the presidency and civil rights. How about one on the presidency and sexual harassment, or even on the evolving role of women in politics? The keepers of the flame owe it to the women consumed by it.