JFK: A “product of his times” or a lecherous jerk?

An odd story popped up in the Boston Globe this weekend that normally wouldn’t have caught my attention, but a closer look made it more interesting. There’s an auction of presidential memorabilia taking place at Boston-based RR Auction house and it includes some obscure items from the past. One, in particular, is a small collection of hand-written letters from President John F. Kennedy. They were sent to a woman in Sweden named Gunilla von Post. But these weren’t policy memos urging Sweden to help us beat the Soviet Union in the space race. These were love letters to a paramour and they were written during a period when both Kennedy and later von Post, would be married to other people.

“You are wonderful and I miss you,” Kennedy wrote in a February 1956 letter. Then he called his time with von Post a “bright memory of my life.”

Kennedy and von Post first met in 1953, in the summer heat of Cannes, weeks before the politician’s wedding. Almost two years after, the pair “spent a very blissful and intimate week consummating the relationship” in Sweden, according to von Post’s memoir, the RR Auction summary states.

His letters reference the romantic getaway and von Post’s impending marriage to landowner Anders Ekman. He wrote about being “anxious” to see her again and signed the missives as “Jack.”

Kennedy’s “relationship” with von Post began barely weeks before he was to marry Jacqueline Bouvier and continued on and off for several years. Later in the correspondence, he expresses his sadness over the news that von Post was soon to marry and she was “not coming to the U.S. and you are marrying a farmer.”

This guy was engaged to and went on to marry a stunningly beautiful woman from an influential family but he was already playing the field before they even made it to their honeymoon. And despite the fact that he was cheating on his own wife, he had the nerve to get upset over the fact that von Post would have the nerve to marry another man. On top of that, he insults her fiance’ by calling him “a farmer” when Anders Ekman was actually a modestly wealthy landowner.

All through those years, it was an open secret that Kennedy was playing the field with Marilyn Monroe and God only knows how many other women, passing them back and forth with his brother Bobby. As my rather unsubtle father would have put it back in the day, this guy was banging more than a screen door in a hurricane. Of course, none of this was ever mentioned in the press. Nobody wanted to disrupt the fantasy of the “New Camelot” that the Kennedys were building in Washington. But these letters from von Post’s collection really point out what a shallow and callous man he was.

Why bring all of this up now? I’ll give you all a moment to recall how many hours of endless news cycles and mountains of newspaper articles were spent over the past six years talking about Donald Trump’s infidelity and how those flaws should have been disqualifying characteristics. (For the record, I have never defended Trump’s cheating and I still don’t approve of it.) But this is 2021 and all of the JFK stuff was back in the sixties, right? So does that make it different? Should we consider JFK to simply be a “product of his times” when everyone would just shrug and declare that boys will be boys?

The answer is no, and that’s for a couple of reasons. First of all, that same attitude prevailed with other notable public figures many decades later. Bill Clinton’s “love life” was fairly infamous. At one point during an interview, even Hillary Clinton felt compelled to laugh it off and say that Bill was “a hard dog to keep on the porch.” And yet when Mark Sanford (another noted marital scumbag) returned from “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” the calls for his immediate resignation rang across the country. So there’s clearly a double standard in how such stories are handled.

But there’s a second factor in why the argument that someone from the more distant past is just “a product of their times” doesn’t wash. Do you see any other notable figures from the past being excused in that fashion today? There are several memorable figures whose statues are still being torn down today for sins they committed literally centuries ago. (Talk about living in “different times.”) Has anyone gotten around to renaming any of the many buildings and roads named after former KKK bigwig Robert Byrd yet? No? Okay, well… never mind, I guess.

We have plenty of people who experience extremely convenient memory lapses as this game plays out in the press, don’t you think? And I don’t know about you, but I’m running a bit short on sympathy for all of the righteous indignation on display when there is no consistency behind it.

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