I suppose they’ve finally done it. Someone somewhere has finally forced me to revisit my old fallback position (“I-don’t-care-about-his-sex-life-as-long-as-he-can-govern”) and fall over. Flat. With disgust.
That someone happens to be Mimi Alford (Mimi Beardsley to John F. Kennedy, when she was 19, a virginal intern), about the hundredth person to describe in a book what it was like to crawl into bed with the president of the United States. The bed which, as it turned out, JFK shared with Jackie.
Now you and I could argue for hours and hours about Mimi’s motives, at age 68, for detailing her long-ago past. She has her own rationale: writing a book was a thrilling, a liberating experience for the graduate of Miss Porter’s School in Manhattan. Why so liberating? Because keeping a secret, Mimi told the New York Times on Sunday “silences a piece of you inside.”
Maybe so, maybe so. On the other hand, not for nothing is it said that silence is golden.
And you could also argue, as I often used to, that all around the world great leaders (along with the not-so-great) are allowed the same privilege possessed by those they govern: a thick soft curtain of privacy that drops over their most intimate moments. After all, most citizens of the nations they govern are quite content to keep that curtain intact. François Mitterrand, the late French president, was spared the ignominy of having his sex life dissected, for instance. It was only at his funeral that the press unveiled Anne Pingeot, his mourning mistress, and an out-of-wedlock grown daughter, both of whom accompanied the coffin in a quietly dignified manner alongside Danielle Mitterrand, his widow. No one, it must be said, was surprised.
In France it is generally understood that people, men especially, are fragile. That the particular talent and objective of the professional male politician is to seduce—just about everyone within reach. And that, inevitably, it is not just the electorate that succumbs to this brand of seduction within a particular room, conference hall, or nation. Once turned on, the switch stays that way, long after he steps off the podium and his aides silence the mike.
And not just in France. Israel has long kept quiet about the intimate life of Benjamin Netanyahu, married three times, the third to a hellion. Italy for decades considered a prime minister’s off-time off-limits, until the elderly, orange-tinted Silvio Berlusconi flaunted and vaunted his affairs with prostitutes, some of whom turned out to be underage and therefore (theoretically only) potential jailbait. One thing is certain: if Berlusconi, now a private citizen, ever does go to prison, which seems unlikely given the pass Italy usually extends to the powerful, it will not be because he was convicted of his sex life.
Which brings us back to the United States, a country that forgives nothing, least of all a roaming eye—kind of a crazy attitude to take, considering how many sets of powerful eyes, their gaze occasionally trained elsewhere than on the White House, go roaming. On the whole, I’m grateful that most Americans didn’t know about the affairs of FDR, Eisenhower, or LBJ—none of anyone’s business, really.
Even Clinton’s marital lapses were, I felt, largely a matter for the Clintons. Clinton did not seduce teenagers. He did not, as it now turns out his idol John Kennedy did, consider an intern to be basically nothing more than a White House trading card, a source of pleasure not merely for himself but for a top, trusted aide. Or at least, as far as we know, he didn’t …
Really, when you come right down to it, we all know very little about our male leaders and their so-called private lives while they are in power—and whatever we do discover while they are still in office is usually banal, ugly, and sad. The terrible, sick stuff comes out only much later, usually when they are dead.
On the other hand, nothing tacky and loathsome emerges from the bedrooms of modern women leaders. Ever. Perhaps one shouldn’t make too much of this: there haven’t been all that many. Still, one cannot imagine, say, Germany’s Angela Merkel taking time off from her keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to play cougar. Whatever her faults (and there were many), Indira Gandhi apparently didn’t do much chasing after teenage interns. Nor did Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Or the late Golda Meir of Israel. Or the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. They were all—how shall I put this?—responsible.
So draw whatever conclusions you want from this list. But for my part, I have come full circle. Yes, the private lives of the powerful are everyone’s business nowadays. And yes, it’s time to give male leaders worldwide a long, richly deserved retirement party. They aren’t after all that much different from toddlers. They can’t keep their pants on. They cannot be trusted.