[This article appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 1997, pp. 185-197.]
BOOK REVIEW ARTICLE
Presidents Kennedy and Clinton: Case Studies in Society's Condonation of "Twilight" Behavior
Dwight D. Murphey
Wichita State University
The books that lay the foundation for this article relate to the behavioral deviancy, mainly sexual, of two American presidents, John F. Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton. They would seem an odd choice for review in a scholarly journal were it not that important issues of sociology and intellectual history are highlighted by the deviancy. We will discuss the books themselves first and will follow that discussion with an analysis of those larger issues.
All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy
Pocket Books, 1996
The revelations in All Too Human are of behavior so perverse that an evaluation of the book's credibility becomes a threshold issue in any discussion of it. (Oddly, and probably revealingly, the reviews in such major media outlets as Time and Newsweek place no stress on this. They mostly treat the reported behavior as consistent with known facts about the Kennedys.) (1)
The reasons to give it credence are persuasive:
. The author, Edward Klein, is a journalist at the peak of his profession; a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he was for eleven years the editor of The New York Times Magazine.
. The book is issued by a major publisher. This presumably, though not conclusively, certifies to a higher standard of journalism than one would expect from outlets known for their "yellow journalism."
. Klein's book is the product of painstaking work, based on interviews with 325 people close to the Kennedys. He was personally acquainted with Jackie Kennedy.
. Perhaps most importantly, his bias is pro-Kennedy and "liberal." This appears in various ways throughout the book, such as on page 215 when Klein attempts a rather obtuse justification for some especially callous behavior on President Kennedy's part. The book's title, All Too Human, is itself a rationalization for behavior that many millions of people would loath to see characterized as typical of "the human." It is important to remember, too, that it was precisely the "liberal media" that built up the Kennedy image. Those media, in which Klein has been a leading figure, have no predisposition toward tearing down the Kennedys. In fact, they incline to just the opposite, having been the creators of the "Camelot" fantasy.
. It constitutes an "admission against interest" for the liberal media to make these revelations, since it is an admission that they themselves at one time deluded the American public.
. Klein is quite obviously committed, despite that bias, to a "fair-minded reporting" of the facts. No doubt he has done this despite severe personal cost. (He wrote an article for Parade magazine's August 25, 1996, issue, which is of interest because his revelations there are mixed with the most transparent sycophancy. We can suppose the article marks something of a desperate effort to "make amends.")
Counterpoised against all of this, of course, is the fact that "there is money to be made in" such an expose, and the additional fact that experience has shown that the prevailing American media, even at the top, deserve far less than respectful obeisance. It is necessary to ask, too, whether some of the revelations strain credulity, since they are of behavior just too personal and too outlandish to be easily believable.
These might balance out were it not for the fact that so many independent sources corroborate just the sort of behavior the book describes. Newsweek, for example, says that "as for Jack, his monomaniacal skirt-chasing has been well documented." If so, that documentation consists precisely of accounts similar to those contained in All Too Human.
If we resolve the issue of credibility roughly, at least, in favor of believing the reports, we come next to the question of what, specifically, that behavior was. And here we confront the horns of a dilemma. If we don't spell out the details, the reader won't have freshly in mind the particulars that will be needed for our later discussion of their significance. If we do recount them, we turn the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies into nothing less than an academic version of Larry Flynt's Hustler. What is fitting for Hustler, surely one of the world's sleaziest magazines, just isn't appropriate to these pages.
We have resolved that dilemma in favor of the editor's predilections toward decency, which means that the description we make of the revelations contained in All Too Human will have to be at the lowest possible level of prurience. How to do that? Suffice it to say in general terms that, regarding John F. Kennedy, Klein tells of group sex, public sex, sex on the run, sex in hallowed places, sex in a house of prostitution, mob connections, venereal disease and gross sexual infidelity toward his wife, Jackie, even while she was recovering from the birth of a dead baby. We are told that Jack's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, possessed an unquenchable sexual fire along much the same lines and had made the family's fortune through stock manipulation and mob-connected bootlegging -- all as prelude to appointment as the first Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and then as the United States ambassador to Great Britain. Joseph was prominently mentioned, we are told, as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 1940 if Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose not to run for a third term. Klein's revelations about Jackie make it clear that she was by no means an innocent seduced into a satyr's world.
Although we have not told the specifics by this general description, it is helpful be assured that the reader is not foreclosed from knowing what they are. Klein's book recounts them in detail.
Beyond the particulars themselves, what is most noteworthy is that the behavior had a rationale. It lay in a contemptuous repudiation of "bourgeois" norms. Klein says of women like Jackie that "they did not look for a lovey-dovey bourgeois relationship in which their husband would sit by their bed, hold their hand...." (2)
Elsewhere: "Jackie was envious of [her sister] Lee's ability to thumb her nose at bourgeois convention...." (3)
Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House
Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1996
Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics
Anonymous [revealed eventually to be Joe Klein]
Random House, 1996
Our attention now shifts to two books relating to a more recent president -- William Jefferson Clinton --, who as a young man was an admirer of John F. Kennedy and whose life has so greatly paralleled his.
As part of the defense of Clinton against the revelations made by Aldrich's book, it has been customary to deprecate the author as though his observations are of little consequence. This runs directly counter to the credence that ought to be given to his account. He was perhaps the person best situated to observe first-hand the events within the Clinton White House up to the time of his retirement in June 1995. And he was the observer who, by credentials and experience, would seem the most impartial regarding those events. Aldrich served for thirty years as a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was one of the two FBI agents stationed permanently within the White House during the final two years of President George Bush's term and during more than two years of President Clinton's first term. The job of the FBI agents within the White House was primarily to do the background investigation for security clearances for White House and other executive branch employees.
Some of what Aldrich reports is based on his direct observation, and much on talks he had with "well placed sources," who were abundant around him. It was Craig Livingstone, the White House "director of security," for example, who told Aldrich of the affair between Hillary Clinton and Vincent Foster. And it was a "well placed White House source" who told Aldrich that Bill Clinton disappeared from the White House at night for hours at a time; this is supplemented by word from "an experienced investigator" who told Aldrich that at those times the president would go to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington, clandestinely entering through the basement parking garage. The reader will accordingly want to peruse Unlimited Access personally to assess the credence he is prepared to give to these reports. Credibility is enhanced, of course, by the fact that they are consistent with similar reports relating to Clinton's time as governor of Arkansas from several purported participants -- such people as Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and certain state troopers.
A point of emphasis in Aldrich's book, naturally enough in light of his own White House FBI work, is how the Clinton assemblage harbored a deep contempt for the security-clearance process, and were willing to play fast and loose with top secret government information. Among much evidence of this is the fact that the White House Counsel's office held up 42 clearance forms for seven months while the staff members involved continued to have access to top-secret documents. Fourteen months after Clinton was inaugurated, hundreds of staff members still didn't have passes. This all stemmed directly from the president and first lady, who we are told spoke of Secret Service agents as "personal, trained pigs."
But for our purposes what is most interesting is the counter-cultural tone of the Clintons and their assemblage, which included a sexuality in the Kennedy tradition (though stemming from a source in the counter-culture of the 1960s rather than from the spoiledness and snobbery of the uncultured rich). For the preparation of the White House Christmas tree in 1993, a call was put out to art students around the country to submit decorations. Aldrich was among the staff members invited to help place the decorations on the tree. After it was decorated with such "ornaments" as condoms, male figurines with erect penises, drug paraphernalia, and "cock rings," Hillary's social secretary declared the tree "perfect." For the route of the public tour entering the White House, Hillary selected a statue called "Bertha" which featured "huge naked buttocks." An order had to be given for all White House staffers to wear underwear after a woman staff member bent over, revealing no undergarments. Employees of the GSA Supervising Carpenter caught two male staff members having sex with each other on a White House desk; and a woman staff member reported seeing two women having sex in a White House shower stall. A cleaning lady complained that staffers threw garbage and trash on the floor. During Clinton's trip to the site of the Normandy invasion, staff members stole U.S. Navy towels; and at the Normandy cemetery a staff member intentionally kicked over the American flag at a soldier's grave so that cameras could show Clinton putting it back.
None of this, according to Aldrich, was out of keeping with the tone set by Bill and Hillary themselves. Contrary to Bill's affable and Hillary's polished public images, each indulged in continual obscenity and rage. They screamed at each other on the day of the inauguration, and had frequent rages with each other and the staff.
The Clintons' Kennedyesque sexual tone is perhaps best brought out by Joe Klein (not to be confused with the Ed Klein who wrote the Kennedy book) in the novel Primary Colors. Although presented as a piece of fiction, so that no direct credence should be given to any particular detail, it is thought by the major media to be an uncannily accurate "insider's account" of the 1992 Democratic primary election campaign. "Whoever did it had both real inside information and a dead-on eye," wrote Newsweek on January 29, 1996. The book made a sensation when released, the media finding itself speculating at length about who the author could possibly be. When finally Joe Klein, himself a columnist for Newsweek, was finally unmasked as the author, considerable anger was heaped upon him for having lied when he had denied having written it.
It is significant that the cascade of speculation about authorship and the anger that followed were never predicated on the book's having painted an inaccurate picture of the Clintons (pictured through the fictional characters Jack and Susan Stanton) or their entourage. There is no outrage that "they have been slandered." Nothing speaks more eloquently for the book's essential accuracy than that omission by a great many people who were in a position to know.
We will not recount the story, which is a novel about the campaign. There are, however, salient features for us to note. One of these is that a central theme of the novel is "campaign sex" -- between the character who narrates the story and another campaign staffer, between the first lady-to-be and the narrator, and between the presidential candidate Jack Stanton and a waitress with whom he fathers an illegitimate child.
Equally important is the portrayal of Stanton's personality. It is that of a master at projecting warmth and sincerity. Stanton captivated people with a caring gaze and a touch on the arm. It is more than a little coincidence that All Too Human tells us, about Jack Kennedy, that "he developed a unique style of expression that created a sense of emotional intimacy between himself and his audience. Women adored him." This is precisely the picture we receive of the fictional Jack Stanton -- and the picture we have of President William Jefferson Clinton.
Issues of Sociology and Intellectual History
"Twilight Behavior": A Major Activity Needing Study and Comprehension
The first issue suggested by the books we have just reviewed is important to sociology. It has to do with the existence of a vast area of life, crucially important in the actual conduct of human affairs, that scarcely receives academic attention. This is the sub rosa area, the twilight zone between the poles of legality and illegality, the ethical and the unethical, the outwardly known and the half-hidden. We will make four points about it:
(a) that activity within this twilight zone -- which we will call "the third realm," as a matter separate from the two poles -- comprises a major portion of real human behavior, despite the lack of formal attention given to it;
(b) that so vast an area of activity should be the subject of serious observation and analysis -- and is a possible new frontier for the social sciences;
(c) that to discuss it does not imply condoning all, or even much, that occurs within it, even though a blanket condemnation is itself not justifiable; and
(d) that a full and open consciousness of twilight behavior would add considerably to the maturity of our understanding of life, which currently is often childishly simplistic.
First, to speak to its incidence:
Not long ago, I wrote a Legal Studies monograph giving a history and analysis of lynching. (4) The final third of that essay dealt with the nature of justice and the relationship of both lynching and established legal institutions to it. I made no defense, of course, of lynching, which is an enormity; but I did see considerable ambiguity between "law" and "the extra-legal" so far as their service to justice is concerned. We are accustomed to thinking in sharp categories, whereas in fact most things come in a continuum or, perhaps more accurately, in a roughhewn web. Lynching, as detestable as it is, could approximate justice, sometimes doing so better than established legal institutions could; law, on the other hand, as laudable as it is in the ideal, often falls far short of justice. The balance, we hope and confidently assert, favors law. But the issue is clouded rather than clear-cut.
In law, we think of the polarity of "legal" and "illegal"; in ethics, of "ethical" and "unethical." There is, however, the enormous third category made up of the twilight zone between each pole. The world is fascinated by it, but scholarship largely ignores it, probably because this third realm lies outside the customary mental categories. As with lynching (which is execution not through the forms of law but with community condonation), there are no rules for it. A sociologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and others might study it and even ascribe laws to it, but this would need to be after much empirical observation to see what it really is and does. What separates this realm definitionally from what is clearly "illegal" or "unethical" is that the behavior is either condoned by an effective plurality or there is no effective enforcement seeing to compliance with recognized norms.
In almost all areas of life, there is this realm of the "practical realist." This is the realm of the driver who does not quite obey the speed laws, but also does not go so fast as to be stopped by a policeman; or who, if he is stopped, has set upon a way to "beat the ticket." This is the driver who never stops at an intersection if there is just enough yellow to justify his entering before the light turns red. It is the realm of the high academic officer I talked with the other day who says she never pays a parking ticket she receives in another state, since there is no way for the state to enforce it. In short, it marks the existence of every person who "knows" that there is more to life than playing by the rules and staying within the defined channels, who knows that to bend the rules is often efficacious and even "necessary," and who has a profound sense of just how "foolish" it is either to live a life of "naive conformity" to norms or to flout them so much as to "get into trouble."
There are a great many cultural determinants for just how far "off limits" people are willing to go, and for how much twilight behavior they are willing to condone in others. So the deviancy is a variable, changing with the likes of culture, ideology and religion. But it should be evident that such activity is common coinage within almost all sorts of settings and institutions. Nothing becomes clearer to someone who has engaged actively in the world than that little is quite what it holds itself out to be. This means that, for this as well as other reasons, humanity operates in part through illusions; human activity is like a faulty television transmission: a double image, one the intended one, the other its displaced shadow.
This is a favorite subject in fiction and drama, which loves to play on its ambiguities without seriously attempting to sort them out. Sometimes the "efficacious man" is presented in a favorable light, such as in a free-wheeling action adventure by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy. At other times, norms are set up righteously to condemn precisely the same sort of man, such as in the film A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson plays a Marine colonel who is disgraced for ordering extralegal (and, in the event, fatal) discipline. There is relatively little reflection about why in some cases the behavior is nodded at approvingly and in others scorned with censure.
This "third realm" is so vast that it is not particularly exceptional that the three books under review here, which illustrate it, have to do with presidents. Presidents Kennedy and Clinton make spectacular examples because of the elevated nature of their office, but in one dimension they can be seen as mere examples. The corpus of life as lived by the millions is much larger than they are.
This brings us to the second point. Since this third realm is an important dimension of human life, it should, in my opinion, be a major field for observation and study in its own right. Departments in the humanities and social sciences would do well to put it under a microscope. Law schools would serve their students and the intellectual world by inquiring into not just the law and violations of it, as though those were the only two alternatives, but also about how people and institutions actually behave, making up the de facto norms by which a people live. For that to occur, it must be made less invisible, more a matter of acknowledged existence. Students would gain a preparation for the legal world as they will confront it in fact, and could actually reflect in a detached and professional manner about how they will wish to relate to it and perhaps change it.
We do not mean by this to suggest anything quite akin to what has been known as "legal realism," "sociological jurisprudence," or "moral relativism." Those have largely reflected the Left's need, in its ideological assault on bourgeois society, to undercut the ideal of law as law; i.e., what in the present context I would perhaps call "the first realm." This same desire used moral relativism as an ideological tool to undercut the moral standards of "bourgeois" society. It should be possible to study off-the-record behavior and come to terms with it without marrying the study to ideological attack.
Third, there is the question of evaluation. Our relationship to "practical realism" is essentially unresolved. Often it amounts to condonation, sometimes to hearty approval (as when black crowds cheered the acquittal of O. J. Simpson), and at other times to condemnation, either genuine or hypocritical. When we see that John F. Kennedy is remembered with reverence and that William Jefferson Clinton was able to win not just one but two terms in the White House, we are reminded of how much the world (or, maybe, sometimes just important parts of it) winks at "off the record" behavior -- and of just how remarkably extensive that behavior is.
But the fact that public reaction to the twilight behavior is mixed should not obscure the question of what a people's reaction ought to be. Norms are vital as one of the cements that hold civilization together.
The entire twilight world exists on the premise, evidently held by a great many people in countless circumstances, that "the end does in fact often justify the means." Despite the violence done to theories of law and ethics for us to say so, we can see that sometimes ends do justify otherwise unacceptable means, where something of value is gained by a disproportionately less damaging deviation. An example would be a real-life scenario where it becomes necessary to use torture in interrogation to gain information needed to save a million lives. On a less dramatic scale, people often find a "white lie" (i.e., a lie about some inconsequential thing) worthwhile, since it smoothes relationships while being uttered without either the intent or the actuality of injury.
But most of the time the twilight behavior can claim no such justification; the imperative that drives it is simple expediency, unmoved by any punctilio over the observance of norms. The actors could stay within the norms if they chose to, but it is more convenient not to. Here, there is real conflict between law and ethics, on the one hand, and the "practical realist's" behavior, on the other.
To minimize that flouting, it is necessary for a culture to understand and to strengthen, to the extent possible, the determinants of lawful and ethical consensus. Nothing could be clearer from the books we have reviewed than that those determinants have become weak in twentieth century America, where a thousand signs inform us that cultural decadence has become a major fact of life.
Fourth, there is the matter of maturation. Right now, we are childishly inconsistent and non-reflective about twilight behavior. It would make us more mature and self-aware if we acknowledged and talked about that realm's existence. We could come to realize why we condone what we do, if that seems justifiable; and we might move ourselves toward condemning that which is not. In any case, we might lessen our naivete, our confusion, and our double standards.
Some Additional Light Shed Upon America's Alienated Subculture
In the mid-1980s I authored a history of "modern liberal" thought. (5) I traced several steps leading, among other things, to moral relativism:
. how, beginning early in the nineteenth century, the American intelligentsia became alienated against the main society;
. how it consolidated its ideology by studying under the German Historical School in the late nineteenth century;
. how the "modern liberal" ideology and political program have largely reflected an "alliance" of the intellectual subculture with a variety of disaffected or unassimilated groups in American society; and
. how that alliance, together with the intelligentsia's alienation from the commercial middle class, led naturally to its adopting a morally and culturally relativistic worldview.
A principal value of moral and cultural relativism to the Left, especially during the heyday of the counter-culture, has been that it undercuts the values embraced by the main culture. These are said to be "artificial structurings" and "no better than any other social choices." In addition, moral relativism provides the rationale for an empathetic, therapeutic view of the behavior and ways of life of those who are less successful or outside the mainstream. This is essential if the ideological and political relationship is to be one of appealing (the liberal-Left's opponents would say "pandering") to those people.
What did not come to mind in the course of that discussion was the extent to which this moral relativism has led American "liberalism," the liberal media, and the Democratic Party to condone, when convenient, quite a lot of egregiously bad behavior (as judged by the norms of the mainstream culture).
This includes not only sexual deviance, but also condonation of criminality. The latter is illustrated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's appointing Joseph P. Kennedy as the first head of the Securities Exchange Commission just a short time after Kennedy made his fortune in stock manipulation and mob-connected bootlegging, and by President John F. Kennedy's continued contact with the man, Sam Giancana, who was the United States' leading mob leader after the death of Al Capone. As author Edward Klein points out, Giancana credited himself with having gotten John F. Kennedy elected.
It is valuable to understand that the behavior of the Kennedys and Clintons reflects a long-term disposition on the part of certain major ideological and political forces in the United States. Instead of seeing their behavior in isolation, we see it as a measure of what "modern liberalism" is willing to accept -- even among its favorites as they occupy the highest office of the land. This adds at least a footnote to the major themes of my book's discussion.
The revelations about the Kennedys and Clintons show us, too, more graphically than in perhaps any other way, that the American "liberal Left" has long had three characteristics that go to its essence but that have scarcely been noticed:
First, that the intellectual, political and media elite at its helm stands quite apart from the mainstream society, in effect mocking it with arrogance and disdain. (What could be more clear as an inference from John F. Kennedy's drug use and sex immediately before going on national television for his first debate with Richard Nixon, or his promiscuous on-the-run sex during the presidential campaign? The acts themselves are noteworthy enough, but what I would have us notice is the state of mind that must have accompanied them. Here was a man, supported by the milieu that surrounded him, whose "reality" was totally different from the image he would convey, and who showed that inwardly he held in contempt the way of life of the millions whom he was inducing to buy into that image.)
Second, that with such a division between an inward reality-of-contempt and an outward appeal-to-the-masses, the "democracy" that the liberal Left has so long extolled is essentially, precisely as seen by it, a "suckers' game." There is no respect for the millions, or desire truly to inform them, or intention really to give effect to their mandates (certainly not in the moral area). The millions have been there, and continue to be there, just to be used. In this regard, the electorate in "the world's oldest and largest democracy" was much like the women whom author Edward Klein tells us John F. Kennedy would use sexually and then lose interest in.
Third, it is confirmed once again, as it has been from innumerable sources, that the intellectual-ideological elite that has so ubiquitously set the tone of twentieth century American civilization in literature, film, the arts, and politics has, again as judged by the norms that have long been associated with mainstream American society, been "depraved" almost to the point of pathology. This has been no ordinary elite, certainly not a high-minded one. If we wish to understand, say, the language, sexuality and brutality of post-1960s American films, we need look nowhere else. It tells us that the Berkeley "Free Speech Movement" (on behalf of obscenity) or the scandals over National Endowment for the Arts grants are not exceptions. The point is that the elite itself is, and long has been, aberrant.
Such observations are "judgmental nonsense," of course, to those who consider behavioral norms, especially with regard to sex, unjustifiable corollaries of a despicable mainstream culture. That they are so considered by many within the subculture of alienation does not, however, invalidate them as measures of conduct for others who consider them imperative to civilization.
For many, a literature that tells of the deviancy of leaders in their "twilight" off-the-record lives will possess almost entirely a prurient interest. Our purpose in this discussion has been, however, to show that that deviancy has a much broader import. It tells us a great deal about the nature of the society in which we live and of major forces within it.
1. See the review by Ginia Bellafante in Time, issue of June 17, 1996; and the reviews in Newsweek on July 29, 1996, and August 19, 1996.
2. Klein, All Too Human, p. 209.
3. Klein, All Too Human, p. 218.
4. Under the title The History of Lynching: A Legal Studies Monograph, the essay is No. 24 in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies Monograph Series. It is available on this Web site.
5. Although it was originally published under a different title by the University Press of America, the most recently published version of this book is my Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1992). This, too, is available on this Web site.