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Jackie, Oh No

The Kennedy apparat swings into action again.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Is there a more empathetic person in the world than Diane Sawyer, the top newsreader at ABC TV? I’m sure there must be—around seven billion of them, probably. But is there anyone who looks more empathetic than Diane Sawyer? Not a chance. When she peers at you through the camera she has the look of someone who’s just seen your lab results and is trying to figure out how to break the bad news. It must be terribly unnerving to see it close up, firsthand, in person—especially while she’s sitting next to you on a couch, no less.

Cartoon of Jackie Kennedy Onassis Being Erased

Gary Locke

I give Caroline Kennedy a lot of credit for retaining her composure with those two moist peepers trained in on her. This was during a long interview conducted for a two-hour TV special that ABC aired September 13 called Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words. (Diane Sawyer told us the proper pronunciation of Mrs. Kennedy’s first name is “Zsock-leen,” though everybody called her Jackie, which must have made life less embarrassing.) The special was the trumpet blast alerting the nation to the publication of another product of the Kennedy apparat, Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. The book consists of previously unheard interviews Mrs. Kennedy gave Arthur Schlesinger in early 1964—eight CDs’ worth. 

Every time you think that the Kennedy apparat is dead, there’s some new burst of publicity that makes you realize it’s still humming, or at least wheezing. These guys know how to move units. Here in the twenty-first century, in keeping with contemporary “best practices,” a good deal of the work previously done by Kennedy toadies—court historians, speechwriters, bagmen, PR wizards—has been outsourced, and ABC is one of the chief contractors. For 36 hours the network became the Zsock-leen Channel, from Good Morning America to Nightline, and a week later, Historic Conversations was the bestselling book in the country.

The apparat continues work begun by the patriarch, Joe Kennedy, in the 1930s. One of his first moves was to hire Hollywood cinematographers to record the everyday doings (staged) of his toothy and, in a few cases, toothsome children, in Technicolor, on 35mm film. The scenes were then inventoried and cross-tabulated by activity and Kennedy kid—Touch Football w/Eunice, Part xxxvii; Touch Football w/Eunice, Part xxxviii—and stored in a flameproof warehouse in the Bronx. It was destroyed by fire, and the film canisters went up with it. That damn Kennedy curse. 

The photographers kept at it, needless to say, and the stills and movies produced over the course of half a century are essential to the Kennedy mystique. It’s as if Joe foresaw that future generations of his family were going to have to seduce a population that was quickly sliding into a post-literate age. But he didn’t ignore the written word, or the potential that books carry to turn myth into fact. In 1940, old Joe hired the New York Times columnist Arthur Krock to “edit” Jack Kennedy’s senior thesis from Harvard, which was published under the title Why England Slept. It became an instant bestseller, after Joe instantly, and quietly, bought up 30,000 copies. The tradition of improbable bestsellers has continued even up to Caroline, who made a tremendous success a decade ago with a book called The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis—not poems written by her mother; just poems sacralized into objects of veneration by the mere fact of her mother’s liking them.

This new campaign—the book itself and its flogging on ABC—is slightly different from past Kennedy productions. Yes, there were the usual iterations of the Kennedy myth: lots of pictures and film of the photogenic family; vast overstatements about the political importance of the Kennedy administration and the cultural importance of Jack and Jackie (Zsock-ee?), along with dewy phrasemaking from Diane Sawyer about their “cultural claim to the American century” and how the newly released taped interviews “held the promise of a brand new century.” (This is chronologically confusing, but you get the idea.) 

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