The Presidency: Upstairs at the White House

Upstairs at the White House

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Sex -- real or imagined -- is far more hazardous to the political health of a presidential candidate than to a sitting President. The man in the White House has a meticulous security system that regulates comings and goings and the witnesses thereof. The lips of the securers are sealed until death. After that, of course, the President is always exposed in memoirs and diaries. But that just spices history.

Presidential aspirants are unprotected. And sometimes suspected. It is probably fair to say that John Kennedy's legendary White House athletics (including a rumored romp on the Lincoln bed with a National Security Council staffer) had a kind of wicked appeal, and a lot of young politicians took up his hairstyle, stage mannerisms, the projection of thinly veiled lust. And maybe more.

Kennedy has become the case study for sex in presidential politics, but, as so often happens in such emotional matters, the study is haphazard. There is every reason to believe that Kennedy's desire for women was as strong when he was Senator and candidate as it was when he was President. Yet there were no sightings of him arm in arm on a lonely night street, no public confessions by inamoratas, no telephone records or photos. The crowded turmoil of his campaign was his screen. Attractive women and men were almost always around, even in his bedrooms as he changed clothes, lounged, ate or napped. Gary Hart's very loneliness was his enemy.

Lyndon Johnson was also a focus of sexual stories during his pre-White House years when he was Senate majority leader. There were many glimpses of him motoring to the Georgetown home of an attractive young woman, of his wanderings through his Texas ranch house to the bedrooms of guests. But, as usual, there were no eyewitnesses in the bedrooms.

Johnson constantly bragged about his sexual appetite and apparatus, though he was such a storyteller that nobody was sure what to believe. The vision of that gargantuan figure rampaging through the sheets may have squelched more curiosity than it aroused. While President, Johnson was witnessed hectoring an attractive blond journalist, at dinner on his ranch, into staying the night. His language, even in front of his family members, was full of double meaning. The blond fled.

The White House press corps's grand old man, U.P.I.'s late Merriman Smith, used to regale the young scribes with stories of his days on Franklin Roosevelt's train from Washington to Hyde Park, N.Y., how it would stop on a New Jersey siding for a rendezvous with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. Smith never wrote the story, never had any final facts.

The circumstantial evidence of Kennedy's sexual adventures during his White House years was abundant, possibly innocent acts inflated by Kennedy's lurid reputation. On Inauguration night, just after Jackie had gone home alone (she was still recovering from the difficult birth of John Jr.), a reporter peered through the potted palms behind the stage and saw Actresses Kim Novak and Angie Dickinson joining the President's small coterie. At a Palm Beach, Fla., mansion following Kennedy's summit with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, the President dined with an old school chum, an acquaintance and two attractive young ladies. The acquaintance left after dinner and the chum and the ladies pointedly stayed.

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