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Jewish World Review May 19, 2003 / 17 Iyar 5763

Steve Young

Steve Young
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Measuring failure of character is an uneven science: Failure May In Fact Be A+ | The new JFK book, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek, spends sparse moments revealing the late president's tryst with a young White House intern. Talk show hosts have pounced on it quicker than, well, than JFK pounced on that intern. Talkers seem more glued to that single detail than a thirteen year old boy would be to a Sears Catalog page full of brassieres the same year of the affair.

I, for one, am shocked. How could he do such a thing? I mean, what if Marilyn found out he was being unfaithful to her?

Of course the lords of talk radio have likened Kennedy's action (and he certainly seemed to get quite a bit) to Bill Clinton's Oval Office pizza deliveries from Monica Lewinsky. This of course was long before the "can't I just be left alone" Lewinsky was enlisted to be left alone weekly on national TV. The likening is a natural. Almost as much as the JFK/Lincoln lists of likenings. And the discussions have almost all been about character...or rather, lack of character.

Many pundits have asked us to consider how much better a president Kennedy would have been without his womanizing. I wonder. And I wonder how much better would Reagan have performed if he needed less sleep? How much better would have FDR presided over depression and war if he was not bound to a wheel chair. How much better would James Buchanan would have performed if he had a woman behind the man?

How well any one of us might perform without our imperfections. But that's not to be known as character defects are inherent and no one can be perfect lest they be G-d. And don't you believe that G-d wouldn't still face anti-G-d ads if he chose to run for President.

Perhaps a better question to be asked is: Would we worse off without our defects; without our failures? There is a whole host of evidence that failures and mistakes can not only be our stepping stones to success, but they are very things that are necessary for us to grow. Do I need to remind anyone that the United States was discovered by a sailor who was looking for the West Indies. An old (and aren't they all) Chinese proverb says that a diamond cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.

But more troublesome than the accusations themselves are that character assassinations are so often hurled by those with no dearth of character defects themselves.

While the reports of the young president's flaws seems to be the grist for the talk mill, and certainly the story has a bit of sensationalistic cache, you have to question why the flag-waving polticos of AM radio haven't moved from that slobber-soaked page to another part of the book that holds much stronger stash of character tender: Kennedy's war time record. Or rather his all out effort to be available to have a war time at all.

JFK, a man of great wealth and power, used family connections not to duck serving his country or place him in some sort of Nation Guard capacity, but to obscure his medical record (and medical defects) so that he could serve in World War II. His subsequent war record and PT-109 heroics are of legend, as well as a pretty decent film.

Contrast the war record of this former PT boat commander with one of his present day accusers, a talk show host who, while taking great relish in exploiting the Democrat Kennedy's womanizing, did not serve during the Vietnam War. He was declared ineligible for the draft because of a medical conditiion that could have been remedied by a simple procedure which would have made him fit to courageously defend South Viet Nam in what I'm sure would have been a noteworthy, if not longwinded, manner.

This is not to say that many of us would have gone to any greater lengths than our talk host to put ourselves in harm's way. This is only to say that one should beware the taking of political pot shots especially if their glass house has cranky columnists peering in.

Would Kennedy have been a better president without his intern proclivities? Who knows? It's just so much conjecture. If the failure thesis plays at all, one might argue that it made him do his job better. Not I, of course. My wife reads all my columns.

But whether Democrat or Republican, flawed or moralist (or both), the revelation of a young man's selfless effort to fight against tyranny no matter the pain or risk, makes his asking us not to question what our country has done for us, but to ask what we can do for our country seems now more than ever, not to have been a politically-orchestrated, made-for-television, political photo-op moment, but rather a reminder of the true depth of his own character. And for that he did not fail.

JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is contributing editor at the Writers Guild of America's "Written By" magazine. He is the author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful: Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Stepping Stones to Success," "The 130 Tales of Winchell Mink," Harper Collins (Winter, 2003) and the director/writer of "My Dinner With Ovitz." His website is Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Steve Young