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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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.