Last week I watched at least five interviews with Mimi Alford, the author of a new book in which she claims that as a 19-year-old White House intern, she had an 18-month affair with President John F. Kennedy. At 69, Ms. Alford is now a slender, elegant woman with a short white bob, tortoise shell glasses, and perfectly wrinkled skin. She is very soft spoken and speaks with a deliberateness that suggests she’s given a lot of thought to what she’s about to say. I’ve seen Ms. Alford interviewed by Meredith Vieira, Anne Curry, and the ladies of The View (Barbara Walters was particularly hard on her possible profit motive), and though she keeps telling the same stories I remain endlessly fascinated.
Her story goes like this. As a student at Miss Porter’s Academy in Connecticut, the same elite boarding school attended by Jacqueline Kennedy, Alford (then Mimi Beardsley) went to the White House to interview Mrs. Kennedy. She never met her but was in the presence of the President and his right-hand man Dave Powers. The next year she received an offer for an internship in the White House Press Office despite the fact that she had not applied for a position there. On her fourth day of work, Powers invited her for a lunchtime swim. They were joined by two young female staffers and then, to her surprise, the President. After the swim, they all went back to work.
Later that day she was invited into the White House residence, and she and a few other people shared a pitcher of daiquiris with the President before he led her off on a private tour of the rooms that had been recently and famously re-decorated by his wife. The tour ended in Mrs. Kennedy’s bedroom where by Alford’s report the President pushed her down on the corner of the bed and she lost her virginity.
If this had taken place today in a fraternity house or, perhaps more analogously, a movie-star’s hotel room, we would probably be debating whether this incident constituted date or acquaintance rape. Some would argue that she was young, had been given two drinks, and was with a much more powerful man (not to mention that there were two armed guards outside the door who worked for him). Others would say that she was an adult, went into the room with him willingly, and that by her own account he did not use force and she did not say no.
Ms. Alford herself does not think of it as rape though she does say that short of screaming she thinks there was nothing she could have done to stop it. (Of course, in 1962 rape was still mostly thought of as something done by men jumping out of bushes and brandishing weapons so it would be unusual for her to have thought of this situation in those terms.) What she does say is that she was in shock for much of the event itself and felt an overwhelming urge to go home and take a shower. Still, she admits that she willingly accepted his next invitation and began what would be a long-term affair.
Whether or not their encounter constituted rape, it and the relationship that followed was based on a massive power imbalance. She was a 19-year-old college student and he was 45 years old and literally the most powerful man in the world. She called him Mr. President. He summoned her to the White House when his wife was away where she waited for him to be done with work. She says they didn’t talk much though fondly recalls having rubber ducky races in the bathtub. He sent her to cities to which he was travelling and she’d wait for him in hotel rooms. He never kissed her on the lips.
In one of the more sordid details of the new memoir, Ms. Alford recalls an incident in which the President essentially dared her to perform oral sex on Mr. Powers and watched as she did. She says she is embarrassed by this and other aspects of her behavior but she was swept up the excitement of the situation and in the fact the he had chosen her (she says she did not know that he had or was rumored to have many other mistresses).
My guess is that few young women would have behaved any differently than Ms. Alford did in this situation. Being wanted by such a desirable man is very heady stuff as is being included as part of a powerful person’s inner-circle (she was called to the White House from her college in Massachusetts on one of the tensest nights during the Cuban Missile Crisis). But the relationship as she describes it also makes me sad for her 19-year-old self, makes me feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky (for what I must admit is the first time), and makes me worry about the countless young women who have or will be in similar situations with much more powerful men, be it their boss, their professor, or a celebrity. Because my guess is that the temporary boon to one’s self-esteem that comes with the start of the courtship fades quickly when the actual terms of the relationship become clear. Ms. Alford was at JFK’s beck and call but could ask little if anything of him in return; she couldn’t even call him by his first name.
Ms. Alford says that she would not change what happened and that is understandable; in many ways the relationship and the years of keeping it secret defined her adult life. And I would not presume to think she should feel otherwise. That said, I can’t help but hope that the defining relationships in my daughters’ lives involve partners who are their professional, social, intellectual, emotional, and sexual equals.