The character issue is back in the news, sparked by an explosive new book by a former White House intern who says she had an 18-month affair with President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and 1963.
Mimi Alford, who was known prior to her marriage as Mimi Beardsley, worked as a summer intern at the White House when she says Kennedy initiated the affair. She was a 19 year-old who had completed her first year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and describes herself as a virgin at the time.
One day, Kennedy invited her to swim with him in the White House pool and asked her to join him that evening in the East Wing residence. He had sex with her in the bedroom of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, she says.
In her new book, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, Alford says Kennedy didn't force her to have sex but adds that she was naive and foolish to succumb to the president's advances. Throughout the affair, she always called him "Mr. President" and they never kissed on the lips.
The affair was actually disclosed in a 38-word passage in An Unfinished Life, a Kennedy biography published in 2003 by historian Robert Dallek. But Dallek offered no details at the time.
Now there are details, and they portray a president who was reckless and self-indulgent in his personal life.
In her book, Alford, now a 69 year-old grandmother and retired church administrator, says she performed oral sex on a friend of Kennedy's while the president watched. Alford says she was with the president on at least one night during the harrowing Cuban missile crisis in 1963, when the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war. And she says Kennedy phoned her repeatedly under an assumed name at her college dormitory and arranged for her to travel to Washington so they could continue their affair over a year and a half.
Dallek told me that Alford's book "certainly confirms that Kennedy was a compulsive womanizer." The historian condemned Kennedy's "disgusting behavior, inexcusable behavior—a 45-year-old man who is president and a 19-year-old intern."
Dallek added: "It once again raises questions about presidential character. Does it matter? Certainly it matters....After all, a president represents the best of the national character. We don't expect them to be perfect but we expect them to demonstrate a certain level of decency."
The revelations could have relevance in the current presidential campaign, the historian said, because they could renew interest in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's admission of past adulteries. Gingrich is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
Dallek also told me that Kennedy's personal failings and "recklessness" should be balanced against his successes as president. "Don't forget, Kennedy did a lot of good," Dallek says. "He saved the world from nuclear disaster. We shouldn't lose sight of that. But it doesn't excuse for a second what he did [regarding Alford]."
An Alford interview with NBC is scheduled for broadcast Wednesday night.