She was a shy, star-struck college student. He was a famous, charismatic, perpetually on-the-make married politician who paid her special attention and then embarked on a secret affair with her. Flattered and smitten, she believed she truly mattered to him. Twice her age and sexually voracious, he was content to let her think so while he dallied with her.
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? No, John F. Kennedy and Diana de Vegh, then a Radcliffe undergraduate and later a graduate student at Harvard, now an 83-year-old psychotherapist who told her story in Air Mail, Graydon Carter’s digital newsweekly. In recounting her story some six decades later, de Vegh is reflecting on both the nature of her youthful delusion and the mores that enabled Kennedy’s callous behavior.
“I think John Kennedy was absolutely a man of his culture, because he didn’t just behave in a piggish way with women without the support of no end of other men,” she said in an interview. With the help of aides and enablers, Kennedy arranged for her to attend his political events and then to come to his Boston apartment, where their sexual relationship commenced. It continued in Washington once he became president.
After her story was published, de Vegh told me, four women came up to her at a church service and told her that they had similar stories of sexual exploitation by older, powerful men.
Therein lies an opportunity for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. It could break with presidential library boosterism and present a more honest and forthright picture of the 35th president and the political culture then and now.
Would de Vegh participate in such an exercise? If its purpose was to say, “He was a man of his culture, and now let’s look at the culture and how it betrayed women and how there were no limits for men,” then she would.
De Vegh acknowledges she doesn’t have any pictures of herself with Kennedy, let alone proof of their affair. Still, her account, which she has previously confided to others, fairly closely mirrors that of Mimi Alford, a White House intern Kennedy singled out for special notice — and then determined sexual attentions — when she was 19.
It is, of course, hardly headline news that JFK was a serial philanderer or that numerous other politicians are as well. My view is that if public figures have consensual affairs that aren’t age exploitative or pursued in ways that use as leverage an imbalance in personal or professional power or involve unwanted comments or physical contact, it’s really not a matter of huge political moment.
But Kennedy’s affairs with de Vegh and Alford fell well outside those boundaries. Alford was still technically a teenager, de Vegh only 20. Kennedy was in his 40s.
In many ways, Kennedy’s age-inappropriate dalliances with de Vegh and Alford are similar to Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. There is one big difference, however. Over the quarter-century since Clinton’s sexual relationship with Lewinsky, he has been re-contextualized in no small part because of his louche sexual behavior. It is an aspect of his presidency that has led people to realize that for all his talents, Clinton was a lecherous politician who abused his power in relationships with women.
But a similar reconsideration hasn’t happened with JFK. Part of it is that his assassination froze him in memory in another era. Part of it is that because of his death at 46, Kennedy never had to face questions about his own behavior. And part of it is us: When confronted with troubling information about people we admire, we tend to resolve the cognitive dissonance not by developing a more complex view of that person but rather by wishing away that uncongenial information.
Which raises this question: Why don’t the presidential libraries of the two men offer a more forthright presentation about that aspect of their conduct? I put that query to both organizations — and received what at first struck me as a semi-thoughtful reply, via statement, from Alan Price, director of the JFK Library:
“The exhibits of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum focus on President Kennedy’s public life and his service in office, rather than his private life. As with all of the presidential museums, the primary purpose of our exhibits is to promote an understanding of the presidency and the American experience. However, the Library and Archives branch of our institution is open to historians and researchers for projects that more fully explore the actions and events surrounding the Kennedy presidency, administration, and life.”
Until, that is, I got this reply from the Clinton Library.
“The exhibits of the William J. Clinton and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum focus on President Clinton’s and President Kennedy’s public life and their service in office, rather than their private lives. As with all of the presidential museums, the primary purpose is to promote an understanding of the presidency and the American experience. However, the Library and Archives branch of all of our institutions are open to historians and researchers for projects that delve deeper into the broader spectrum and events of each President’s life beyond the impact of his presidency.”
That standard-issue statement, I was advised, should be attributed to the National Archives and Records Administration, which is responsible for the administration of presidential libraries.
Translation: Sorry, our partially taxpayer-supported presidential libraries really aren’t interested in the whole truth. They prefer to provide a rose-colored journey along a carefully curated path.
For her part, de Vegh said one of the most gratifying messages she has received since she told her story was from a friend who said she and her husband had a long conversation with their 23-year-old granddaughter about the way young women are exploited by older, more powerful men. The psychotherapist hopes her candid account will catalyze those kinds of conversations.
“Why are we not preparing young women better for this kind of unequal relationship?” she asks. “I think we really need to start taking apart the culture that so undermines young women.”