A Dad, a Cad

JFK was a loving family man who doted on his children—and a philanderer who seduced an intern in his wife's bed.
President Kennedy claps in time as his children dance around the Oval Office in October 1962. Caroline was soon to turn 5; John Jr. was almost 2. (White House/AP)

In 2011, Caroline Kennedy appeared on the David Letterman show, her first visit, and Dave was thrilled, almost starstruck, to have this singular woman sitting beside him. There were any number of things they could have talked about, but what Dave was dying to do was look at some of those old pictures with her. He’d had two of the most famous of them mounted on black cardboard, and before he held them up to the camera, he apologized for taking up her time with them.

“These are pictures you’ve had all your life,” he said, tapping the stack eagerly and grasping for words. Maybe, in fact, she was tired of looking at them—“but do you mind if I show these?”

“No,” she said graciously, laughing in her easy, appealing way, conducting perfectly the job she was born to and has never shirked; “but everybody else is probably tired of looking at them.”

Hardly …

Pictures of two children playing in their father’s office: John crouching under the big desk, peeking out from the secret panel; Caroline and her brother dancing on the lush carpet. In the background, their delighted father looks on, clapping his hands, as though nothing on his agenda could be more pressing than these hijinks.

Suffer the little children to come unto me is the unwritten caption of all these saintly images. The Soviets can kiss off for five minutes; the blacks can hold their water. John-John has an adorable new hiding place, and the most powerful person in the world is fully absorbed by it. These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own. It’s the father as a person of great importance in some vaguely apprehended larger world where the grown-ups live, and where he takes care of essential and necessary matters but will gladly put all of that aside to spend an extra moment with his precious children …

[In Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy, taped interviews with the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.,] Jackie describes a man whose deep affection for his children was central among the many pleasures of his life. He liked having them underfoot, and he complained bitterly when Jackie delayed moving them to the White House until their rooms were painted. He was forever opening the door of the Oval Office to them, or catching sight of them playing outside and sneaking them candy. In the morning, as his wife dreamed on in her own bedroom, he would eat breakfast from a tray in his, while the children sat near him, blasting cartoons or Jack LaLanne on the television. He would be in his rocking chair, dressed in his shirtsleeves and boxer shorts as he read the day’s newspapers and briefings, but he would pause to watch them tumble and chatter, not irritated but invigorated by their noisy, energetic presence. He was hugely proud of them …

As for the marriage … it clearly was not a cold or mercenary arrangement. Their time together was unsullied by domestic drudgery, enriched by their shared love of reading and gossip, made meaningful by the joy of raising two children and the sorrow of losing two others. Their homeliest routines were those of rich people from an earlier era, and so seem novelistic and appealing in descriptions. He loved to give her gifts of the antiquities and watercolors she adored, and sometimes he’d be so unsure of what to choose for her that he’d have the New York dealers send him 50 different items so she could take her pick …

Most of all, you get the sense of a young couple busy with children and with figuring out, as all young couples must, how to occupy and distract them. “You’ve got to get me some books, or something. I’m running out of children’s stories,” he once told Jackie after trying to make up yet another story for Caroline. Another time he asked her to buy some toys for his bathroom, because John would wander in while he was bathing and he had nothing to entertain him with. So Jackie bought some rubber ducks, which led to a fond family story—the bathroom that male dinner guests had use of was JFK’s, causing Jackie to imagine what in the world they would think when they saw all those rubber ducks lined up on the edge of the president’s tub …

Can you imagine? The president of the United States collected rubber ducks.

And it was right then—with the description of the rubber ducks, and the way they evoked the closeness of father and son, the intimacy of husband and wife, and the essential nature of married life—that I got back together with John Kennedy. We had been broken up for a few years, at least; I’d lost track. What busts us up is never a revelation about the bungling and risky behavior that marked so much of his brief presidency; what does it is each new revelation about his womanizing and the way these revelations impugn the photographs for which David Letterman and so many other people—myself included—have such strong feelings. Those pictures make me realize anew what a patsy I’ve been. How could they be anything more than a shrewd campaign, one that plays on the very sentiment—an essentially bourgeois regard for what is nowadays called “the sanctity of marriage”—for which JFK himself had such obvious contempt? I’ll swear to myself that I’ll never backslide again, but then I’ll catch sight of one of those pictures, or—in this case—listen to Jackie’s beautiful story about the well-loved children, the besotted father, the romance at the heart of the operation, and once again, I’m sunk.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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