For the Love of a Dangerous Man

I've been meaning to dig into this Caitlin Flanagan piece on America's love affair with Kennedy, if only because I don't quite understand it. I split with a lot of liberals in the sense that I recoil at sexual recklessness in liberal politicians. I get the concern about infantalizing grown women, and pretending as if they don't have a sexual will of their own.


But when you are politician, what derails you also derails the people who worked for you. More specifically, I think a large part of maturation is understanding what you want in the now, and what you want in the future, and seeing how the want the former can so often undermine the latter. We teach this to children. I don't think it's too much to expect it of people who aspire to the launch codes.

At any rate, Flanagan's essay actually helped me understand a bit. She begins by discussing Kennedy's appeal as a father, but towards the end goes somewhere darker:

As for John Kennedy--what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them. ("That administration," said LBJ--painted birds long forgotten, the mists of Camelot beginning to clear--"had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.") He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his "second Cuba" (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: "Only the most servile masochist ... can congratulate [Kennedy] on the 'coolness' with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making"), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him. 

But most of all, he made us feel good about ourselves; he inspired us. Toward what? Mostly toward him. All these years later--half the time hating ourselves for it--we're still as thrilled by him as Mimi Alford was. He had a singular masculinity, and his very callousness and recklessness with women don't blight his appeal; they enhance it. The typical progressive woman thinks she is drawn to him because of his groovy, feel-good work on behalf of civil rights, but that's an assertion that doesn't bear 15 minutes' exploration. John Kennedy voted against Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act; he made lofty campaign promises that assured him the black vote but then sat on his hands for all of 1961; his nickname for James Baldwin was "Martin Luther Queen." The reason so many women love him really has nothing to do with his actual accomplishments and everything to do with his being the kind of man whose every inclination runs counter to their best interests. If history--to say nothing of fictional characters, including the Dons, Draper and Juan--has taught us anything, it is that a significant number of women are desperately, often tragically, attracted to that very trait. Men recognize and respond to this in Kennedy, just as strongly as women do...
JFK was a man whose sexual life remained a central fact of his existence, who did not allow it to be diminished by anything--not his political ambitions, not issues of national security, not his Catholicism, not loyalty to his friends and his male relatives, not physical limitation or pain, not the risk of infecting any of his partners with the venereal disease that regularly plagued him, not fear of impregnating someone, not the potential for personal embarrassment, and certainly, certainly, not his marriage. 

John Kennedy, that ravishing creature, could spend a morning riding unbroken horses, bareback, in the Newport sunshine with a very young Jacqueline Bouvier, and he could maneuver a 19-year-old Wheaton sophomore into bed within minutes of encountering her at a cocktail party, could groom her so completely to his liking that she could be goaded into giving a blow job to his friend while he stood and watched. We're not supposed to like men like that; the ones who put in a boorish performance at it, we loathe. But the ones who can pull it off--God help us.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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