National Commentary

Kennedy on Kennedy

Reading Jacqueline Kennedy’s interviews with historian Arthur Schlesinger reminded me of what we lack in the current presidential candidates – inspiration and hope.

We could also use some new ideas for attacking the 9.1 percent unemployment rate, and the slumping economy. But the silence is deafening and depressing. The GOP candidates are too busy undercutting one another to inspire or bring hope to struggling Americans. But that is another story.

I covered the Kennedy Administration at the White House from Jan. 20, 1961, until John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and all proceeding Presidents in the White House, through part of the Obama Administration. I too have memories, but as an outside observer.

The gossip around town was that Jackie hated politics. She did skip some of the Democratic ladies’ teas at the White House, and she did prefer to spend her weekends fox hunting in Middleburg, Virginia.

To hear her tell it, Jackie was allured by her husband’s political ambitions, and the conversation at the White House dinner table was politics. She also pitched in during the 1960 presidential campaign, calling conservative Senator Pat McCarran (with a Kennedy aide) and won McCarran’s support and his whole Nevada delegation.

The new book with historic photos of the former first family is titled Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, and includes a foreword by daughter Caroline Kennedy.

The book is well worth reading, reflecting on a private White House and the insights into the goals and personal ambitions of those surrounding the Kennedys.
Jackie was known as an elegant first lady and a style setter. Although she shunned feminism and the movement for equality in the White House, she caught up when she went to work as an editor at Doubleday after JFK’s death.

The former first lady made her mark in history by restoring the White House to its Colonial-era elegance, and helped to preserve the great historic buildings in Washington, which were going to be torn down for the new look of glass and steel.

Jackie also brought great artists to the White House, including a dinner featuring cellist Pablo Casals, an exhibit of the Mona Lisa brought by French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux, and performances by Shakespearean actors like John Gielgud.

Jackie was not above snide remarks about aides and cabinet members in her husband’s administration. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s eloquent speechwriter, became a bĂȘte noire when he seemed to promote his authorship of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. Kennedy put the question to rest by pulling out the yellow legal pad which included his notes for the book.

Jackie made it clear there was no love between Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, who was twice defeated as the Democratic presidential nominee. She also disdained Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Kennedy saw he had some hurdles to win the presidency: His Catholicism, and his youth – he was only 43 years old. Former President Harry Truman attacked his age and inexperience.

To deflect the opposition to his Catholicism, Kennedy went to Houston to address a Presbyterian Convention and won the praises of the ministers by promising not to take orders from the Pope. To this day, his speech remains memorable – something Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and current candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination, should be using during his campaign.

Jackie had some reservations about the Kennedy Palace Guard. She said Kennedy “didn’t particularly like Lyndon B. Johnson,” whom he later picked to be his Vice Presidential candidate, hoping Johnson would bring with him the reluctant South. Jackie thought Johnson was “rude” to her husband, but Kennedy was always sending the jibes back.

Jackie became disenchanted with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. when Bobby, then attorney general, told her of FBI tapes documenting King’s illicit relations with women.

When asked what Kennedy had left as a legacy, she said, “He gave youth and intellect, and taste, a world voice … and he had extraordinary contribution of idealism and realism.” Kennedy told us to reach for the stars during his lifetime. Where are such candidates today?