The Magazine

Pathology of Power

Sally Bedell Smith and the many forms of monarchy.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Sally Bedell Smith has a thing for kings. Or, not kings quite so much as powerful people who form courts around themselves as a function of power or wealth. Her very best books all describe these arrangements: In All His Glory, about the CBS mogul William Paley; Grace and Power, about the Kennedy White House; For Love of Politics, about Bill and Hillary Clinton; even Reflected Glory, about onetime kept woman Pamela Harriman, who, after a lifetime as maîtresse en titre to men of means and/or power, evolved in time into a sort of queen dowager, with retainers and knights of her own.

John F. Kennedy at Santa Monica, 1962

John F. Kennedy at Santa Monica, 1962

AP

Of all these people, the least grandiose was Bill Clinton, who ran his White House much like a campus, allowing male aides to wear long hair and earrings, strew pizza boxes on conference tables, and play loud rock music in the Executive Office Building next door. Yet all of Smith’s subjects enjoyed the illusion and aura of power, exerted in various ways. 

“The image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many,” Smith writes; Isaiah Berlin saw a resemblance to the court of Napoleon, David Ormsby Gore compared it to the court of the Tudors. “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies-in-waiting—actual or would-be,” wrote Stewart Alsop. And Richard Neustadt thought that the Kennedy White House resembled apartments one saw at Versailles. Owing to propertied parents and in-laws, the Kennedys enjoyed access to a number of luxurious getaways approximating the lesser holdings of royalty: “As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged.”

Left to himself, Kennedy might have run the White House as he ran PT-109; but his wife, an aesthete, had different ideas. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said her designer, Oleg Cassini, who also said that she modeled herself on Madame de Maintenon, consort of Louis XIV. Hence the use of her wardrobe as a political statement, the restoration of the White House as a historical landmark, and the relentlessly high-toned classical music evenings, through which her bored husband dutifully sat.

No one lived on the grand scale so much as Paley, described by Smith as “The Prince” and “The King,” who seized what he could of the world and its riches: two beautiful wives, numerous doxies, a splendid collection of antiques and paintings, lavishly beautiful homes. “They lived on a level of luxury I never met in England before the war, and I had been to quite a few great houses like Blenheim,” said an English acquaintance. “They ran it in a way that money didn’t seem to count.” 

A despot by nature, Paley treated his friends like his servants, and his employees very much as his slaves. At CBS in New York, an executive was tapped to walk him home nightly, deposit him at the door of his East Side apartment, and take a cab home. On one trip, an aide was assigned to trail him about with a chair at the ready: “When he paused to sit, he didn’t bother to glance back,” Smith tells us. “[H]e knew the chair would be there.” 

With both Paley and Kennedy, guests were expected to pay their own way. “Jack and Jackie Kennedy would quite literally command their courtiers to sing and dance,” Smith tells us, with Navy friend Paul Fay singing “Hooray for Hollywood” and Cassini doing his Charlie Chaplin walk. 

Kennedy knew he was a potentate, and at a dinner for 150, he would point a finger at you and say, “Talk,” said Cassini. “Was I a performing seal? Yes, and it was a slightly naughty thing. He did it with a lot of people. In Palm Beach, after a heavy lunch, he told everyone to do pushups, and everyone did.”

But the main self-indulgence that bound together Smith’s powerful men was their fondness for droit du seigneur. Paley’s amours ranged from Edwina Mountbatten to secretaries and showgirls. As for the presidents, they carried on in the White House under the eyes of their consorts, Kennedy seducing an intern in Jacqueline’s bedroom, Clinton meeting his in a pantry close to the Oval Office one Easter Sunday, after walking back from church with his wife. 

After tales such as this, it is with relief that one turns to Smith’s first book about genuine royalty, Elizabeth II, queen of England for some 60 years now and, by some standards (those of Henry VIII, for example), the least kinglike in manners of all. There are no displays of ego, much less of sadism. Her tastes and her interests are modest and simple. Her surroundings and temperament seem at an impasse: She seems like, and probably is, a good civil servant on a very high level, plunked down in settings of incredible splendor, an upper-middle-class woman who lives in a palace and now and then puts on a tiara and rides in a coach. 

Three of her four children have been divorced (two are remarried) and some of her kin have been fodder for tabloids; but she herself has been happily married for 65 years to the man she fell in love with at the age of 13. One of these things is not like the others, and she is entirely different from Smith’s other subjects, which is a function not only of temperament but of the order of power she wields. 

A great tycoon dominates the organization he owns and has limitless power within it, and the institution is shaped by his character. A president fills an institutional office
with a mystique of its own, infused with his personality, as he tries to advance his agenda. A constitutional monarch such as Elizabeth inhabits a world in which her personality is subsumed by the office she holds. A tycoon or a president leads by imposing his will; Elizabeth has been trained all her life to disguise her intentions. Presidents lead by imposing their preferences, but a queen’s job is to deny that she has any, and, in this, her efforts have met with success. 

“It has also taken vigilance and
discipline for her to keep her views private,” writes Smith. “With the exception of a few relatively inconsequential remarks .  .  . her political views remained a matter of conjecture long after the Sunday Times tried to portray her as a soft Tory, against Margaret Thatcher’s hard line.” The chapters about her relations with Thatcher—the brilliant, abrasive, controversial prime minister—describe the differences between institutional and political leaders, and why the two jobs are so very different. 

One such difference is the active-and-passive discrepancy, a divide which is still more profound. While the others sought out, and fought for, their destinies, Elizabeth was given her job by external forces, through no decision or choice of her own. The lives of presidents and executives involved drama, self-reinvention, and great shifts of fortune—Clinton and Paley rose from obscurity to power and wealth, Kennedy was born to power and wealth but reset his whole life on the death of his brother. Elizabeth was born to her social position, became the heir to the throne while still a child, and has been much the same person for all of her life. 

This person is nicer than Smith’s other subjects; but then, she has never had to be otherwise. They clawed their way up against fierce competition while she ascended serenely, with no opposition, to a life term (or life sentence!) in office. Job security doesn’t seem to be one of her problems: She will never be faced with a primary challenge, and no one is going to run against her for queen. One way of saying this is that presidents, by definition, are abnormal people who fight for and largely enjoy their own power, while royals, more or less, are normal people who find themselves by sheer happenstance in an office much larger than life. 

As Smith says, “The story of Elizabeth II turns on what she made of the life that was given her.” With the others, it turns on the lives that they invented. 

Elizabeth’s luck—and her country’s—is that she seems wholly designed for the life that fate gave her. She is highly intelligent in a practical, commonsense manner, strong-minded while being nonconfrontational, perceptive while being non-otherworldly, reliable, calm, and diplomatic by nature, a woman whose constant, dependable presence makes her a sturdy sheet anchor in times of high tides and strong winds. 

This is in contrast to her son, the prince of Wales, who has, over the years, “questioned the values of a materialistic consumer society, denounced climate change skeptics, called for a ‘revolution’ in the Western world’s ‘mechanistic approaches to science,’ ” and attacked genetically modified crops for “jeopardizing the delicate balance of nature”—for which he was condemned by his father and sister, who have done a great deal of charity work against hunger and said that without such crops, millions of people would starve. 

And so, where are we now? Oddly enough, it is the one man without government office who comes closest to the stereotype of the brute and tyrant. The presidents rank somewhere in the middle, and the genuine monarch, descended from a long line of monarchs, the most modest and plain of them all. 

The word used by Smith again and again to describe Paley is “spoiled” (which she uses for nobody else in her canon), and for the modern equivalent of the Henry VIII type of despot, he comes closest to filling the bill. 

On a descending scale, Paley and Clinton fit the stereotype of the king with a wench in one hand and a turkey leg in the other, JFK has the wench minus the turkey leg, and Elizabeth is much more like Queen Victoria, her more immediate forebear who, in her palaces, exemplified the model of bourgeois, or (upper-) middle-class, life. 

From this, the moral is self-evident: If you want symbolism, be a modern constitutional monarch; if you want genuine power in the historical sense, then be a president. But if you want to live like a king on the old-fashioned level, don’t be a queen, or even a president. Be a modern tycoon.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.