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A tale of two presidents: Honor and dishonor in the White House

  • John F. Kennedy

     (John F. Kennedy Library and Museum)

  • bill clinton 4222011

    President Bill Clinton (2011 Getty Images)

Today is President’s Day, which we mark with tributes to the 44 men who’ve held that office. But while we honor their accomplishments, two events this month remind us we shouldn’t ignore their failings.

This month, Mimi Alford published “Once Upon A Secret,” her account of an affair she had with John F. Kennedy in the White House which began while she was a 19-year-old intern. Historians agree the affair happened and are appalled by Alford’s account of his sordid behavior, but many argue it had nothing to do with the performance of his public duties.

And beginning tonight, PBS will air a four-hour documentary on Bill Clinton’s presidency as part of its “American Experience” series. Barak Goodman, the program’s director and writer, says it will explore a president who was “a mass of contradictions, a man of great inspiring vision and soaring intelligence who has also done some of the dumbest things any president has ever done in office.”

He is referring to the controversy over Monica Lewinsky, the 22-year-old White House intern who had sexual encounters with Clinton, and whose story came out at the same time the president perjured himself before a federal judge taking testimony on sexual harassment claims by Paula Jones, an Arkansas woman, who claimed Clinton exposed himself to her while he was governor. Although many believe the whole scandal “was only about sex,” in reality Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying under oath and obstruction of justice in covering up the Lewinsky affair. He was later acquitted by the Senate.

But the Kennedy and Clinton scandals have more in common than that they involved affairs between a powerful president and a vulnerable intern who worked for them. Kennedy's reckless behavior with a bevy of beauties carried with it serious national security concerns that shouldn't be ignored.  Likewise, Clinton’s involvement with Lewinsky has been documented to have carried real dangers of international blackmail.

Kennedy carried on a series of affairs with everyone from Jackie Kennedy’s press secretary to Judith Campbell, the girlfriend of Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana.

The president had also begun an affair with Ellen Rometsch, the 27-year-old wife of the military attaché to the West German embassy.

Rometsch was a frequent participant in pool parties at the White House until July 1963, when, according to Kennedy biographer Evan Thomas, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed Bobby Kennedy, the president’s brother, that she had probably also had an affair with a Soviet diplomat and had links with East German intelligence. In August, Rometsch was deported to West Germany, her silence possibly bought with cash payments.

Historians have uncovered occasions during Kennedy’s affairs when at the height of the Cold War he became separated from the military aide who carried the nuclear football, the command-and-control device for directing the nation’s defenses if it were attacked.

The fact that Kennedy “got away” with reckless behavior may have influenced how one of his young fans viewed his own later backstage actions in the White House. In 1963, Bill Clinton visited the White House while he was a high school student and shook President Kennedy’s hand, footage of which was prominently featured in Clinton campaign ads when he ran in 1992.

Clinton clearly emulated Kennedy’s behavior in some ways, and as with JFK there were times when he was distracted by personal matters. In January 1998, on the morning the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, President Clinton had to confess to Colonel Robert Patterson, his senior military aide, that he had lost the nuclear codes he was supposed to carry “and couldn’t recall how long the codes had been missing.” Patterson wrote in his memoirs “Dereliction of Duty,” that he was “appalled” at what he learned.

Clinton’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky had other national security implications and also subjected him to possible international blackmail. From agreeing to talk with the insecure Lewinsky on short notice to conducting extensive job searches for her, President Clinton did a great deal to keep Lewinsky quiet. Nonetheless, she ended up discussing her affair with 11 people. One of those was Linda Tripp, a Pentagon official who recorded their talks. But what if Tripp or someone else had taken those tapes to Chinese or Iranian diplomats instead of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor?

In fact, Clinton realized the security risk their relationship represented. The Starr Report, released in September 1998, reveals that Clinton told Lewinsky that "he suspected that a foreign embassy was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories" if they were ever questioned about their relationship. The president and Lewinsky had "phone sex" 10 to 15 times, so Clinton told Ms. Lewinsky that, if asked, she should say "they knew their calls were being monitored all along, and the phone sex was just a put-on." This laughable "explanation" wouldn't have helped much if a hostile regime had intercepted the explicit calls.

"I'm just horrified to think the commander-in-chief is conducting himself with such reckless disregard for his responsibilities, making himself part and parcel of every blackmail threat that one can imagine," retired Marine Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper told the Washington Times in 1998.  

President Clinton and his aides were well aware of the danger involved in his relationship with the immature Monica Lewinsky. According to the Starr Report, after he ended the relationship, she wrote him a "Dear Sir" letter threatening to tell others about the relationship unless she was relocated back to the White House. The next day, Clinton hauled her in and yelled at her that "it's illegal to threaten the President." In her testimony, Ms. Lewinsky acknowledged the threat but said it wasn't a federal crime. "It was a threat to him as a man. . . . It was irrelevant, the fact that he was President."

But after Lewinsky's threat, Clinton acted in his capacity as president to ask his Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and other aides to find Lewinsky a job. It soon became clear it couldn't be just any job. Lewinsky told Linda Tripp that the president owed her something special: "I don't want to have to work for this position. I just want it to be given to me."

She ratcheted up the pressure even after turning down a position offered to her by United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson. She gave the president a wish list for a well-paying job in Manhattan and suggested his friend Vernon Jordan make the contacts. She told Linda Tripp that she was promised "a job anywhere I wanted to work." She eventually got a Pentagon job, complete with a security clearance.

But when the Monica Lewinsky story broke despite their best efforts, presidential aides went even further. On February 8, 1998, former Clinton White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos appeared on ABC’s “This Week” to warn that White House aides were preparing a new defense in the Lewinsky scandal. “(It’s) what I’ll call the Ellen Rometsch strategy,” he said.

“She was a girlfriend of John F. Kennedy who also happened to be an East German spy. And Robert Kennedy was charged with getting her out of the country and also getting John Edgar Hoover to go to the Congress and say, don’t investigate this because if you do, we’re going to open up everybody’s closets.” 

When questioned about this strategy, Stephanopoulos (who now hosts the same ABC News show “This Week” on which he was a guest back in 1998) became deadly serious: “The President said he would never resign. And I think some around him are willing to take everybody down with him.”

The Code of Federal Regulations (Title 32, Chapter 1, Part 147) makes clear that sexual behavior is a security concern if it is "compulsive or addictive” and "self-destructive or high-risk." The regulations warn a person may lose a security clearance for "personal conduct or concealment of information that may increase an individual's vulnerability to coercion, exploitation, or duress, such as engaging in activities which, if known, may affect the person's personal, professional, or community standing or render the person susceptible to blackmail.”

There is no higher position in terms of national security than the presidency. As commander-in-chief, the president has complete authority to deploy the armed forces and direct the officer corps.

Some presidential historians insist that private behavior shouldn’t affect our judgment of those who sit in the Oval Office. “We expect our husbands to be faithful and our friends to have certain levels of fidelity to us,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “We expect our leader to give us good leadership, but that’s a different thing…you can feel a sense of disappointment, but it doesn’t mean you should be judging (presidents) completely differently.”

Perhaps not, but that still doesn’t mean we should ignore personal behavior when it places high officials at risk of blackmail or even charges of rank hypocrisy.

After all, only one politician had the authority to issue Executive Order No. 12968 in August 1995. It stated that individuals eligible for access to classified material must have a record of "strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion." It was signed by President Bill Clinton. Three months later he began a relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.

John Fund is Senior Editor, American Spectator, and author of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy" (Encounter Books)



John Fund is the national affairs correspondent at National Review Online.