Friday, November 29, 2013

How Jackie Kennedy Taught Us to Grieve

Last week, on November 22, 2013, Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Fifty years ago today, his traumatized widow Jackie, beckoned Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Theodore White to the family’s Hyannis Port compound for an exclusive interview. Following her husband’s murder, the erstwhile first lady intended to retreat from the public eye. Yet, before she withdrew, Jackie needed to speak to America one final time. She designated White, considered Kennedy-friendly, to be her mouthpiece.

After Jackie’s telephone call, White high-tailed it up north. Anticipating the exposé, his editors at LIFE kept the presses open; it cost $30,000/hour. As The New York Post remarked, to do this for a story that wasn't composed, based on an interview that hadn’t transpired was unheard of. Nevertheless, a heart-to-heart with the slain president’s spouse was the of news story a lifetime!

Chatting with Jackie, White characterized her bearing, “Composure . . . beautiful . . . dressed in trim black slacks . . . beige pullover sweater . . . eyes wider than pools . . . calm voice.” During the next 3.5 hours, she chronicled that horrific day just a week earlier, before disclosing her purpose. She was fearful of JFK’s legacy being minimized or tarnished by critics. Steadfast in her vision of how Americans should think of the country’s fallen leader, Jackie disclosed one of the couple’s favorite nighttime routines.

Before bed, JFK enjoyed playing albums, in particular the cast recording for 1960’s smash Broadway musical, Camelot. His favorite lyrics, crooned by Richard Burton, were, “Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” On reflection, Jackie imagined those sentimental lines encapsulated her husband’s presidency. She affirmed, “There'll be great presidents again — and the Johnsons are wonderful, they've been wonderful to me — but there'll never be a Camelot again.”

By equating JFK with this contemporary version of the Arthurian myth, Jackie was conjuring the depiction of the 35th president that’s endured the last half century. This reinterpretation, inspired by T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, accentuated the futility of war, reimagining the fabled monarch as peace-seeking visionary. Accordingly, this is how Jackie envisioned Americans remembering their lost commander-in-chief, a crusader who’d forfeited his life in pursuit of global harmony.

Later, White divulged both he and publishing supervisors were reluctant to disseminate Jackie’s Camelot analogy, but she was unyielding. Additionally, he consented to letting his interviewee make adjustments to the essay. Around 2 a.m., with Jackie lingering nearby, White dictated his editorial over the kitchen telephone. With subscriptions around 30 mil., “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” was undoubtedly consumed by innumerable readers. Subsequently, as Jackie had desired, JFK’s presidency would be immortalized as unequalled Camelot.

Undeniably, Jackie’s comparison has faults. Though JFK professed “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind,” he similarly asserted “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.” His participation in the calamitous Bay of Pigs Invasion and resolution to “draw a line in the sand” concerning Vietnam only further separates him from Jackie’s antiwar idealist. Furthermore, by reworking JFK into what James Piereson labeled “the consummate liberal idealist” whose accomplishments would always be unsurpassed, Jackie made it tougher for the grief-stricken nation to move ahead. If what she contended was true, and there'd “never be another Camelot,” where could the nation go but downwards?

From this unfathomable tragedy came Jackie Kennedy’s longest-lasting achievement. Had JFK lived, her most noteworthy accomplishment might be renovating the White House and infusing timeless glamour into the American presidency. Instead, her legacy’s become that of scrupulously manufacturing how Americans recollect her husband. It’s a vision of the much-loved president many continue to embrace, even revere, today.

For more about Jackie’s Camelot, check-out:

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