Jackie Kennedy is back, but the world she knew as first lady is gone forever. The woman Mamie Eisenhower said looked "younger than Barbie," the fashion icon who didn't want to wear hats but capitulated at Jack's inauguration with a chic pillbox worn on the back of her head so it wouldn't ruin her bouffant hairdo, the widow who described her husband's administration as Camelot, a romantic notion as fanciful as the legend from which it was based, speaks again through a gossamer haze of prefeminist politics.
The seven-part interview the former first lady gave to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., four months after the president was cut down in Dallas, has been published as a book and audio recording. "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy," was released by her daughter Caroline on the 50th anniversary of her father's presidency. She reminds us that a first lady's public role reflects the times in which she lives and, of course, the man she lives with.
Jackie Kennedy was a transitional figure for many reasons. She followed Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of a hero of World War II, a first lady formed in the spit-and-polish world of the Army, who would run a white glove over a window sill to see whether it was free of dust. Jackie was young and glamorous, raised in an East Coast society that knew the cultured rituals of the upper class, and who craved the protection of a husband as a father figure. She would not talk politics with him at the end of the day because he wanted it that way. Besides, she said women were too "emotional" to talk about politics.
She emphasized the arts and brought highbrow culture to low-brow Washington, the capital Jack famously described as a city of "Southern efficiency and Northern charm." Jackie raised the fashion and culinary taste of a city and a nation. Her bone-thin body was adorned by French designers, and she would be shocked by a muscular, athletic Michelle Obama at the U.S. Open tennis matches exhorting young people to "get active and healthy, to eat right, to appreciate exercise."
Arthur Schlesinger recalls on first meeting Jackie that "underneath a veil of lovely inconsequence, she concealed tremendous awareness, an all-seeing eye and a ruthless judgment." Some of her observations that we hear in Diane Sawyer's ABC special about the new book testify to that awareness, eye and judgment. Some don't.
Her observations are snapshots, and she would change her mind over the years, but nevertheless express what she wanted to leave for the record. She is contemptuous of Martin Luther King Jr., whom her husband said was revealed in FBI wiretaps of a telephone conversation of King arranging a sex party on the eve of his famous March on Washington. Jackie would nevertheless come to admire the civil rights icon and attended King's funeral with his family four years later.
She was no doubt aware of her husband's extramarital affairs, but there is no mention of them in these interviews. She portrays herself as the adoring wife who never quarreled with Jack, perhaps wanting to maintain that image for her children as much as for history.
Such observations should be taken with more than a "warehouse of salt," historian Michael Bechloss observes in his introduction. Jackie was resolute in preserving a legend even from the grave. She was disappointed that Jack's assassin was, in her words, "a silly little communist." She modeled her husband's funeral on that of Abraham Lincoln, trying to cast him in similarly heroic terms.
But the young president was considerably less accomplished than Abraham Lincoln and left a limited legacy. He might have wanted history to credit him with the civil-rights legislation that transformed America, but that would be credited to Lyndon Baines Johnson, who muscled it through a reluctant Congress. He was a man whom the Kennedys despised.
The first lady of Camelot, for all her demure image, was ruthless in trying to shape the image of her husband. She granted her first post-assassination interview to Theodore White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, for Life magazine in December 1964. She insisted that the Camelot theme run through the White essay, that he write twice as a refrain: "It will never be that way again."
Jackie thought she was making a pre-emptive strike against historians she feared would not treat her husband as gently as he deserved. She wanted to control her own history, too, by speaking from the grave. But the grave has many voices and they never speak as one. You could ask Guinevere.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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