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
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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.

Smith shows Kennedy ever at it, whether at home in the White House, on the road at diplomatic meetings, or on vacation in Palm Beach. Women are slipped into the White House when Jacqueline is away, they are spirited to rendezvous in villas abroad, and they are squeezed into the backseats of limousines traveling between meetings. And slowly, as Smith describes the events, Kennedy's sexual incontinence infects the people in his court. His various pals from the past feast on his leavings, and even men such as Arthur Schlesinger and Robert McNamara who, one would think, were immune to such dalliances are eventually drawn into the dance. As these details accumulate, unforced, and straightforwardly in the narrative, a picture emerges not of Arthur's Camelot but of Suetonius' Rome.

As the curious lives of the Roman emperors influenced the empire, so the private lives of the Kennedy White House had an effect on public affairs. No one can live this way and plan a coherent future for anything, let alone plan how to confront the determined enemies of our country.

Here the contrast with Margaret Thatcher's life and rule strikes home. Carol, the daughter of Margaret and Denis, does not yet have the reportorial power and mastery of Sally Bedell Smith. She also is an affectionate observer of her parents' lives and marriage and thus may minimize some tensions. But, she is privy to many private experiences of both of them and describes what she saw and others told her about their times in Downing Street.

Margaret Thatcher is, if nothing else, in charge of events. She knows what she is doing, why she is doing it, and can explain her reasons to anyone. Her speeches are expositions of policy and thought. She labors over them and then follows their implications in doing what she said she would. Occasionally, as with the Falklands, she is surprised and must, like Kennedy, respond swiftly with a plan. But most of the time, she is ahead of the wave, surprising and confounding her opponents both domestic and foreign, while offering support to her friends and clear directions to her followers.

Much of her pluck, single-minded sense of purpose, and huge capacity for work rests upon the devotion and loyal support she gains from her husband Denis. Carol Thatcher depicts her parents' characters and partnership primarily from the perspective of Denis's life story. She tells of his early years, his first marriage that failed during the Second World War, to his great dismay, when he was abroad in the service, and his meeting Margaret early in her career as a member of the Conservative party. He is a businessman who successfully expands a family enterprise into an international company. They marry, have twins (Carol and her brother Mark), and proceed to cheer on each other's efforts. When she emerges as the leader of the Conservatives and, ultimately, as an historical figure and the dominant name in the family, he--often amazed at what is happening--celebrates her achievements, supports her in her new responsibilities, and yet continues until retirement at his business and his hobbies.

HE IS NO SOFTHEARTED, women's-rights, go-along type, but a bluff character with gritty prejudices who probably would have resisted voting for a woman prime minister if he hadn't known her. The British press teasingly caricatured these traits--as in the "Dear Bill" parody letters Denis supposedly wrote to a drinking buddy about how he was deprived of gin and golf because of the duties and demands of his consort life. Carol reprints several "Dear Bill" letters with a laugh. In truth, Denis Thatcher never complained about his duties as the supportive spouse but carried them out quietly with dignity and poise. I came to see him as another of those heroes to duty that the British regularly generate when a strong response to a challenge is needed.

Gradually, in Below the Parapet, a view emerges of how the personal side of the Thatcher world came to influence the public side. Obviously, Margaret needed more than just attentiveness from others to accomplish her aims, but her ever-present devoted husband--this strong, constant friend--helped her boldly exert the gifts of character and vision she brought to the job.

That style leads to substance is perhaps a truism. But it is what we might call a true truism--a cliché that for me was never better exemplified than by these descriptions of two administrations and how each mirrored its leader in thought, action, and achievement.

Kennedy and most of his circle (with the prominent exceptions of Robert Kennedy and Sargent Shriver) selfishly exploited the glamour and prerogatives of office and so, being preoccupied privately, dealt with history one crisis at a time. Kennedy will be remembered as mostly overmastered by the global situation he faced and lucky not to have done worse. Thatcher brought a confidence built on personal trust to her work and forged an administration that, reflecting her style and character, addressed with foresight and vigor a multitude of domestic and international problems. She will find her place amongst the greatest leaders of Britain--for the policies she articulated, the changes in government she induced, and the victories she won.

Our manners and our modes have consequences, our fashions and our behaviors sway decisions, and our style influences our substance--because we are, finally, what we do.

Paul R. McHugh is a University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and former psychiatrist in chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.