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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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Mrs. Kennedy’s personal approach carried over into diplomacy. Meeting world leaders, Diane Sawyer said, “she was able to analyze and see with clinical detachment what their strengths and weaknesses were.” But the tapes themselves show someone with rather different interests. When, at dinner, Nikita Khrushchev tried to recite some statistics about wheat production in the Ukraine, she demurred. “And I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Chairman President, don’t bore me with that,’ ” trying to draw the conversation back to Ukrainian folk dancing. She disliked de Gaulle because he was too haughty. (Who knew?) Clinical isn’t the word for her appraisal of Indira Gandhi either. “She is a real prune—bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don’t like her a bit. It always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon.”

The revelation of these taped remarks, and many more like them, has been treated as though they were somehow scandalous, an affront to our modern, progressive sensibility. And maybe they are. But here’s the thing: Mrs. Kennedy was right. Indira Gandhi was an old prune! Madame Nhu was power-crazed! And Martin Luther King—most scandalous of all—he was tricky, certainly from the vantage of mulish politicians, like John Kennedy, whom he tried to manipulate into doing the right thing. Martin Luther King was a pain in the neck, by profession. If he’s become something grander in death it’s partly because he was so irritating to powerful men while he was alive. His beatification has obscured the workaday political realities he lived with, as well as his personal failings as a husband, none of which diminish his greatness as a symbol or a man. So they should stop worrying.

Symbols are what the apparat is in the business of preserving, which accounts for the tone offered by Diane Sawyer and Caroline and the crew at ABC, by turns disbelieving, apologetic, and exculpatory. Who you gonna believe—us or your lyin’ ears? They’re worried we’ll pick up the wrong symbol: not “a woman absolutely in her own right,” as Sawyer said, but a wife with an abiding devotion to her husband and his work and a strong interest in clothes, personalities, history, and interior decoration. Those interests led her to sturdy achievements—restoring the White House with original artifacts, preserving Lafayette Square and other landmarks from hideous, 1960s-era urban development. She was a thoroughly admirable woman, just not in the way the apparat would have liked her to be. 

On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos selected one quote in particular: “I think women should never be in politics. We’re just not suited for it.” 

He turned, incredulous, to Caro-line. “That’s your mom?”

“She would have winced,” Caroline assured us later. 

The tapes offer “the private history we never thought we’d learn,” Diane Sawyer said, “the voice we never thought we’d hear.” She looked, as always, as if she might cry, but I think maybe this time she meant it.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U.

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