Not everyone was straight at the Kennedy Roundtable

No administration since JFK's has boasted such a colorful cast.

Topics: Books,

The New York Daily News item on my book last week by columnists Rush and Molloy took note of an anecdote that will probably be overlooked by most august critics. The story involved William Walton, a gay friend of both JFK and Jackie Kennedy, who continued to be granted cozy access to the first couple after they moved into the White House. One day, Walton recalled, he lolled around with Jack on his bedroom floor in Hyannis Port, with the president still in his underpants after rising from an afternoon nap. All the while, a bemused Jackie snapped pictures of the two men. Meantime, Walton had his own adventures with the glamorous and fun-loving first lady — on one occasion bar-hopping in gay Provincetown with their mutual friend Gore Vidal.

If you’re finding it hard to imagine any other first couple since the Kennedys leading the same sort of casually open-minded social life, join the club. No occupants of the White House since the days of Camelot have surrounded themselves with such a lively mix of artists, intellectuals, celebrities and free spirits. JFK went further. He recruited many of these progressive thinkers into his administration — to the shock and dismay of the Washington old guard, which was used to the halls of power being filled with the usual dour Cold Warriors from the Truman-Eisenhower era.

These centurions of the old order did not know what to make of a president whose speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, was raised as a pacifist in a Unitarian household and was married to a Quaker. They cringed when JFK named Chester Bowles his No. 2 man at the State Department — a self-described foreign policy “radical” who promptly brought in other outside-the-box advisors like legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow. And the old guard howled in fury when they learned that Dick Goodwin — one of the bright young reformers Kennedy had installed in the White House — had broken from Cold War orthodoxy by sitting down with the enemy, none other than charismatic Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, at a late-night party in Montevideo.

Kennedy initially shrugged off the thunder on the right over his controversial advisors. He wanted to shake up the gray and unimaginative world of Washington foreign policy. “My experience in government is that when things are noncontroversial, beautifully coordinated and all the rest, it may be that there is not much going on,” Kennedy told the press. “Ferment,” he added, can be “useful.”

But the thunder grew louder and louder as the Kennedy presidency progressed. JFK felt increasingly compelled to take his vision of a post-Cold War future directly to the American people. That’s what he planned to do in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, where he was going to tell the audience awaiting him at the end of his motorcade that working for peace was “not a sign of weakness.” The best way to show America’s strength, Kennedy intended to say, was not by brandishing our awesome military power but by living up to our democratic ideals” and by practicing what we preach “about equal rights and social justice.”

John Kennedy, of course, did not live to deliver that speech.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.

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