JFK's Womanizing: Why Americans Just Don't Care

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Caitlin Flanagan chats with readers about our beloved and complicated 35th president.

jfk-children.jpgJohn F. Kennedy Library

Contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan talks about her recent essay on history's inclination to overlook the 35th president's philandering.

He was a beloved president and a model father. He was also a notorious philanderer, as a new book reveals in sordid detail. But despite these contradictions, Caitlin Flanagan writes in her new Atlantic essay, Americans will never grow disenchanted with John. F. Kennedy.

On July 11, Caitlin Flanagan came online to discuss Kennedy's complexities with readers. The event is now closed, but you can read the full transcript below.


morten_yvonner: Jackie survived many tragedies, including her own illness, however, I truly believe she, like many mothers would not have faired well with the death of a child-especially her beloved John. Do you agree?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:00

Caitlin Flanagan: I remember when John Kennedy, Jr. died I thought immediately about his mother, and what a blessing it was that she had not had to endure that ultimate loss. I've learned enough about grief over the years to know it's impossible to predict how anyone will respond to it - and the ones who do so with fortitude are by no means the ones less hollowed out by it than the ones who are more obviously broken by it. Perhaps she would have faced it with her characteristic grace and courage.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:06

Harry: What time is this going to begin?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:06

Caitlin Flanagan: Harry, it's on.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:06

kelly: Why do you think Americans cared so much more about Bill Clinton's indiscretions than JFK's? Was it just because it was a different era, or is JFK just somehow magically immune to that kind of judgment?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:06

Caitlin Flanagan: I think of course that it was a different era. But, for all of his womanizing, Kennedy didn't leave any unhappy customers behind. If what so many apparently well-informed sources say is true about Clinton - that his sexual past includes not only a wide number of partners, but also a significant number of women who report (at the very least) aggressive and unwanted sexual approaches from him, this seems not to have been JFK's style at all. He may have broken hearts, but I've never read a single account in which a woman felt that he had done anything other than seduce her.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:11

Harry: this is painful. it's like watching paint dry
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:12

Caitlin Flanagan: Harry, there are other things to do on the Internet besides hovering on at Atlantic live chat.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:13

alison: What do you think makes a man a good father? (President or not.)
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:13

Caitlin Flanagan: I'm sitting a friend who just offered a good answer to this one: "undying loyalty."
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:15

Sam: Has the definitive number of women Kennedy slept with while a) married & b) in office ever been determined?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:15

Caitlin Flanagan: No - but there are numerous accounts that suggest if he wasn't in Wilt Chamberlin territory, he wasn't too far off.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:17

arosner: There's one thing I wasn't totally clear on after reading your article. It was obviously a different time back in JFK's day. A president could be having all sorts of affairs and suffering from secret illnesses, and the public didn't really need to know about it. But do you think that way of operating is better than the way we do things today? Do we need more of that romance in our politics, or is it dangerous?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:17

Caitlin Flanagan: Romance seems to be essential for political success - policy differences aside, Obama is enjoying a romance with his supporters, while Romney can't get to first base.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:19

Lockwood: Did his early death affect our perception of him? Would we feel the same way about his womanizing if we didn't see his life cut short?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:19

Caitlin Flanagan: Certainly his early death shaped our perception of his to a great extent. He was an athlete dying young, in that respect.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:20

Harry: you ain't kidding there, Caitlin
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:20

Caitlin Flanagan: Harry, I told you to go outside and play.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:20

alison: Interesting. So does it matter if a man is involved with his kids, helping out on a day-to-day basis? Or is it enough to pop in here and there for Kodak moments and fatherly advice?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:21

Caitlin Flanagan: Everyone always says (and the social science research, for whatever that is worth, supports) that the bar seems to be lower for fathers than for mothers. The mere presence of a father in the home predicts all sorts of positive outcomes, no matter how involved or not.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:22

Alain: How big a role would you say the assassination of JFK played in immortalizing and immunizing his legacy, no matter how sordid his private life appeared to the public? What ifs not withstanding is there a certain degree of shame associated with that tragic moment in American history that not only allows the public to conveniently forget his indescretions but embrace them as well?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:22

Caitlin Flanagan: Yes, I think your exactly right. In writing the piece I sat down and watched the funeral day coverage all the way through - not just the parts we always see in clips. The monumentality of that day, the shock and grief combined with the formality and stunning grace - it was enough, more than enough, to secure a legacy of good wishes and close feeling.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:24

Marie: as you so brilliantly convey in your piece, JFK's extracurricular behavior directly undermines the image of the doting family man for which he is beloved. Why do you think those who still revere him are so willing to overlook this?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:24

Caitlin Flanagan: I don't know! I think the allure of all the things we want him to stand for must be very powerful. If we want to believe something strongly enough, we will believe it.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:25

NC: Are there any believable reports of illegitimate children from Kennedy's numerous affairs?
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:25

Caitlin Flanagan: No. We the recent book by Mimi Alford reports that he had an abortionist (as doctors who performed abortions were than called) in his rolodex and had functionaries who could put a pregnant woman in touch with him.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:26

Lockwood: America's general opinion toward casual sex is seeming to get more liberal with the waning of religion influence. Birth control and other contraceptives are more widely accepted. But when it comes to our politicians, we seem to have gotten more conservative. Scandals are blown up and looked down upon (i.e. Edwards etc.) . Is this a sign of the media's gain in power or that we really aren't much more liberal when it comes to sex? Also harry, shut up.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:27

Caitlin Flanagan: Lockwood, we must be nice to Harry! He's in the grips of an Internet addiction.

You are so right - it's something I'd love to write a piece about. The only people we seem to expect to live a Ward and June Cleaver existence are our politicians - who, because of the very nature of the job, are the least likely to manage it. Although they do themselves no favors by constantly presenting themselves as family people of the century.
Wednesday July 11, 2012 3:29

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