The Kennedy Scandals

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga

by Doris Kearns Goodwin
St. Martin’s, 932 pp., $19.95 (paper)

A Question of Character: The Life of John F. Kennedy

by Thomas C. Reeves
Free Press, 421 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Founding Father

by Richard Whelan
New American Library

The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power

by Garry Wills
Little, Brown

The price of public life is the exposure of the follies, or worse, the disgraces of private life. Nothing new here—rumors, palace gossip, scandals whispered by the disaffected and the competitive, each sometimes adding false transgressions to a mountain of genuine turpitude. Macauley writes of the “libellers” who, not content with a rich, damaging dossier on Napoleon, were in the habit of publishing “how he poisoned a girl with arsenic, when he was in military school—how he hired a grenadier to shoot Dessaix at Marengo—how he filled St. Cloud with all the pollutions of Capri.” Still, nothing in previous history equals the powers available today, available and tempting to scandal: the discrediting accusation, the compromising revelation sent out without hesitation to the public—all in the friendliest way clanging and banging reputations like cans in the weekly shopping basket. And to this our times have added the playful hidden camera and the amusing bug on the bedside telephone.

Noting the large number of possibly loquacious deponents the public person is associated with for a long or a short time, one might expect a measure of prudence or caution. Instead these unprotected celebrities, when inclined to indiscretions of one sort or another, act as if they were anonymous citizens out having a good time. “Topless,” a recent offering by a member of the British royal family, would not be remarkable if it were among a dour little group of nudists basking on a rock in some forgotten cove. There is a certain charm in imagining that the Duchess and her friend thought they were just two like any other. But, of course, people like others only for purposes of the occasion, since one would not wish to be anonymous for very long. Even the tireless Casanova, noting insufficient respect from one of his multiple partners, might rise up and say: Madame, do not forget to whom you are speaking.

The Kennedys: surely there is a note of tragic kingship in the calamities they have suffered. The death in World War II of the oldest son, the death of a daughter, Kathleen, in an airplane crash, the assassination of John, while President of the United States, and the assassination of Robert, perhaps to be a future president. That was then, long ago it seems; the present historical condition of the family is in many ways dismal indeed, with the males covered by bruises and welts as they are worked over in book after book, in atrocious items marketed as novels and memoirs, and in the jackal-like researches of the celebrity industry. The dead President left his mark on the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis, Civil Rights, the Peace Corps—capital letter affairs for historians and commentators who have not failed to accept the challenge. For the entertainment of the public, there was the grand new White House style. The hospitality to the arts both sacred and profane, that is to music, the invitations for talented …

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Letters

Sour Grapes March 4, 1993