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The Globe and Mail

From JFK to DSK, men of power have always kept their dirty and clean laundry separate

There is a very telling anecdote in Once Upon a Secret, Mimi Alford's new memoir about her affair with John F. Kennedy. In October, 1962, the 19-year-old White House intern left her college classes behind for a "date trip" to Washington to see the president. "Date," you will understand, is a euphemism, although there was something vaguely romantic about the way Kennedy plied her with cold chicken and daiquiris before their encounters (although she only ever called him "Mr. President," even when she'd seen what was under the presidential seal).

On that day in October, she arrived at the White House and was greeted by "a president who was not his usual ebullient self," she writes. "He was tense and quiet and preoccupied, with dark bags under his eyes." There was no opportunity for their usual whimsical bath together, in which they played with rubber ducks, though there was time for the "date."

Afterward, as he spent hours on the phone, she realized what was distracting him: the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis. Astoundingly, in the midst of a rapidly escalating, possibly world-ending game of brinkmanship, Kennedy still had the desire to play hide the rubber ducky with his nubile young friend. The world would end with a bang, one way or another.

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Ms. Alford, who was Mimi Beardsley back in the days when the president took her virginity on his marital bed, has written an oddly affecting memoir that speaks volumes about the way men in power justify their errant behaviour, even to this day.

Kennedy may have made her take amyl nitrate, perform oral sex on one of his best friends, never once kissed her during their 18-month affair, and kept other women on the side, but Ms. Alford is still devoted to his memory, and finds a way to justify all those events. The question is, how did the president justify it? By keeping the executive and priapic branches separate, it seems.

"The President's compartmentalizing allowed him to effectively segregate people in all the areas of his life," she writes. "… His genius was in limiting how often these various compartments overlapped."

It does suggest a leader whose mind resembles a fridge full of Tupperware containers, variously labelled "budget discussions," "possible military strikes" and "long-legged interns who look like they won't slap me in the chops."

But sometimes those boxes start to leak, and suddenly there's a mess to rival the Augean stables. Kennedy was fortunate, shielded by an amiable press and a news cycle that snoozed occasionally. But look at Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who spent part of this week being questioned by police in France in connection with his involvement in a prostitution ring. Mr. Strauss-Kahn apparently argued that while he participated in the occasional orgy – or "libertine soiree," a term that seems less tawdry in French – he had no idea he was consorting with hired help. As his lawyer delicately put it, "I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman."

It's been a precipitous descent for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, from potential French presidential candidate to, in the inimitable words of the New York Post, "international horndog." I'm not the only one who wondered not just why he did it but how – how did he reconcile tireless chasing of skirt with the serious work of running the International Monetary Fund? The answer is probably the same as Kennedy's: He thought he could keep them separate.

That clearly failed, given the events in that Sofitel hotel room last year, and also that one of his subordinates when he was head of the IMF says he pressured her into an affair. He reportedly used that famous seduction technique of pestering her with questions about the economy of Ghana and then turning the topic to sex.

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This week PBS aired a documentary about Bill Clinton, famous for his ability to compartmentalize. He once entertained Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office bathroom right after delivering his weekly radio address, and if that doesn't scream "one hamper for clean laundry and one for dirty" I don't know what does. The advisers interviewed for the documentary, admiring and exasperated in equal measure, wondered the same thing: What made him do it? What greater things could he have accomplished if he wasn't dodging the lava from bimbo eruptions?

Mimi Alford kept her secret for 41 years, and intended to keep it to her grave. It wasn't until 2003 that a New York newspaper, piecing together various hints in public documents, outed her as the mystery intern who'd had an affair with Kennedy. You could say she was trapped in a box all those years, and now she's chosen to climb out.

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