U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers a televised speech during the Cuban missile crisis, Oct. 24, 1962. (Getty Images)
It was September of 1998, and President Bill Clinton was apologizing to his Cabinet for dissembling — OK, more or less lying — about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. His deceit had led many top women in the White House to proclaim their faith in his innocence; but for one Cabinet member, personal embarrassment was the least of her concerns.
Donna Shalala, Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services, told the president his behavior would have gotten him fired from the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where she’d served as chancellor. His accomplishments in the White House were no defense against his behavior, Shalala said.
As she recalled years later in interviews (with me among others), Clinton replied by asking in effect: Would the country have been better off if Richard Nixon had defeated John F. Kennedy in 1960?
I offer this not as more proof Clinton could have sold sand to the Saudis, but to raise an honest-to-God serious question about the Anthony Weiner-Eliot Spitzer-Bob Filner-I Don’t Know Who’s Next world of civic sexcapades.
What does the behavior of political men (and yes, this is so far a gender-specific matter) tell us about their fitness for public office? Hint: if you can come up with a unified field theory, congratulations. I can’t.
Consider the specific example offered by Clinton. The problem with it is, it proves too much.
Sure, a womanizing president (Kennedy) who avoided nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis would be preferable to a monogamous spouse (Nixon) who might have blundered into one (and who later was forced to resign the White House in disgrace after subverting the Constitution in the Watergate scandal).
But you might make the same case about a president with a far darker private life — how (to make a hypothetical case) would you weigh spousal or child abuse against the saving of hundreds of millions of lives?
It’s an absurd argument, of course, since abusive acts are far different from consensual philandering. But lurking beneath is a more serious point: Trying to discern the link between private and public behavior can be fiendishly hard.
That’s likely not true among the cast of Politicians Behaving Badly. San Diego Mayor Filner repeatedly demeaned the women around him, and the idea that he can “fix” his behavior with intense two-week counseling is yet another insult. Spitzer, the former New York governor who by patronizing prostitutes participated in the precise activity he once criminalized as attorney general, shows a sense of entitlement that is breathtaking. As for Weiner, the New York City mayoral candidate ... the best solution here is a taxi back to Planet Earth.
President Kennedy, however, offers a tougher case. I thought I knew the sheer compulsive recklessness of his appetites, not to mention his choice of companions — a suspected spy, the mistress of a top Mafia boss. Kennedy not only exposed himself to blackmail, he was being blackmailed by no less than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who used his knowledge of the president’s private activities to ensure himself job security.
Yet Kennedy’s presidency was defined by an overwhelming sense of prudence. Convinced that miscalculation is the greatest danger in statecraft, Kennedy always moved slowly, trying to put himself in the position of his adversaries, looking to avoid haste and overreach. During the Cuban missile crisis and the ensuing standoff with the Soviet Union, Kennedy was at times the only voice at the table urging a search for alternatives to military engagement that could have triggered World War III. (It’s why I’m reasonably convinced he would have avoided a deep Vietnam entanglement had he lived.)
In no sense does any of this justify Kennedy’s private recklessness; indeed, had his womanizing come to public attention — as it almost did in the weeks before his assassination — his presidency might well have been doomed, and for good reason. But the dichotomy between his personal and professional life tells us to beware of drawing sweeping conclusions about what private impulses tell us about public conduct.