The Magazine

The Substance of Style

Sally Bedell Smith on the Kennedy White House.

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Grace and Power

The Private World of the Kennedy White House

by Sally Bedell Smith

Random House, 640 pp., $29.95

IT WAS INADVERTENT, an accident of timing, that my wife gave me a copy of Sally Bedell Smith's book Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House right at the moment I had borrowed from the library Carol Thatcher's Below the Parapet: The Biography of Denis Thatcher. A blurb in our local paper had prompted my wife's gift, and I had checked out Thatcher's 1996 biography in an attempt to sustain the glow from Margaret Thatcher's remarks at President Reagan's funeral.

But these books, read side by side, suggest a truth about leadership--and, indeed, about the way we all live our lives, leaders or not. It turns out that our manners and our modes have consequences. It turns out that our fashions and our behaviors sway the decisions we make. It turns out that style influences substance. This isn't exactly a revelation. As A.E. Housman once put it, "the news is news that men have heard before." But the significance of style is nonetheless a truth of which we need some reminding these days.

Of the two authors I was reading, Sally Bedell Smith is the better writer, and--not being the daughter of her subject--can take a more objective look at her story. Grace and Power describes the way of life in the Kennedy White House with emphasis on the social and personal activities of John and Jacqueline Kennedy--matters that in other books form merely asides and incidentals during the political and historical events of the Kennedy administration. She vividly portrays more than forty other figures in that three-year drama as they interact with the protagonists. Smith conducted over a hundred interviews and drew from the biographies of the main characters, as well as from archives and personal papers in repositories such as the Library of Congress, the British Public Record Office, and even the FBI. Every factual statement, fresh phrase, or quotation is backed with a note to its source. Yet the writing runs smoothly with a minimum of friction for the reader.

The narrative of Grace and Power is chronological: beginning on the November 1960 Election Day and running through to the assassination and funeral of late November and early December 1963. The author offers little analysis of the historical issues of the day or judgment about the wisdom of the administrative decisions, but she is thorough in describing the events themselves and the reactions to those decisions. She is superb recounting the self-preening exercises of folk like Adlai Stevenson and Joseph Alsop as they struggled to gain the president's ear and be identified as leaders.

What impresses a reader most about the historical events is how little the administration was in charge of them. Much of what the government did was reactive rather than proactive. The White House is seen constantly scrambling to make up for what had already happened. The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, the Diem and Nhu assassinations in Vietnam: All came to pass with varying degrees of surprise to the administration. They offered opportunities for Kennedy to respond with dignity and élan, but he always played catch-up with events.

He was good at it--and certainly others might have been worse--but how one wishes he had been prepared to direct rather than to react to affairs of state. Perhaps, if he had had a second term, four years of playing defense might have prepared him to go on the offense. But perhaps not. From 1963 to 1980, several gifted and knowledgeable figures had influence on American policy, but they found themselves able to do little to direct the course of events. "Of all men's miseries the bitterest is this," Herodotus once wrote, "to know so much and to have control over nothing."

SMITH DOES NOT TRY to explain the failure of the Kennedy White House to command. But just as we now know that Nixon's persecutory preoccupations distracted him and his associates from leadership, so Kennedy's astonishing sexual appetites (and the culture of compliance, secrecy, and collaboration that he generated in his circle) consumed psychic energies that might have been invested elsewhere. Smith is thorough--relentless one can say--in describing this aspect of Kennedy's life. She goes about it just as she does everything else in her story: as matters of fact, naming the women one after another (from glamorous stars such as Marilyn Monroe and molls such as Judith Campbell to women of family and stature and on to such young White House staffers as the pair dubbed "Fiddle" and "Faddle" by onlookers). She never displays a salacious interest--but as name after name rolls by, the result begins to sound Homeric, like the long chapter in the Iliad that's commonly called the Catalogue of the Ships.