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.
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.)
In the normal course of the apparat’s work, elevating the Kennedys requires the denigration of the Eisenhowers, the 1950s, and the supposed dullness of the country that the Kennedys rescued us from—“our country of suburbs and Ozzie and Harriet, poodle skirts and one kind of cheese,” as Diane Sawyer oddly put it, while the screen showed a golden brick of Velveeta. Jackie by contrast wore clothes by designers who would have gone into a dead faint at the sight of a poodle skirt. When the Kennedys moved in, added the court historian Michael Beschloss, “we had a White House that looked like a bad convention hotel.” The Kennedys brought French cuisine to the White House, Diane Sawyer added. “No more Eisenhower cheese sauce and cole slaw. . . . In our middle-class nation, it wasn’t easy for us to fathom this first lady.” Jackie herself is heard complaining about the marks that Ike’s golf shoes left in the flooring. Dwight Eisenhower, lumbering ox.
On the tapes Mrs. Kennedy makes a few snippy comments about Mamie Eisenhower, but not only about Mamie, and here’s where the defensiveness proved necessary. While on the screen those sumptuous Kennedy images swim by, you can hear the protective tone in the voices of the apparat.
“She helped America come of age,” Beschloss said.
“She finds her voice,” Diane Sawyer continued. “And she arguably changes history, global history, for America in the way she deals with foreign leaders because she’s a very effective [advocate] of a very different kind of politics. And she gets it done.”
Thank heavens for that word “arguably,” for without it Diane Sawyer’s statement would be thought self-evidently absurd by—well, by anyone who knows anything about anything. This is extravagant even according to the standards of the apparat. But overstatement is necessary because the Jackie that Schlesinger spoke to back in 1964, and that we hear on the tapes, is not at all someone concerned with changing global history or introducing a new kind of politics.
The tapes make clear that Mrs. Kennedy’s politics were of the old kind. She boasts that she gets all of her political opinions from her husband. “Why wouldn’t I?” she asks. He was the professional politician, not her. “His opinions were the best.” She’s annoyed at women who assert themselves in the world of politics, like Madame Nhu in South Vietnam or Clare Boothe Luce closer to home. “Why are these women like her and Clare Luce, who both obviously are attractive to men, why are they—why do they have this queer thing for power?” And then, whispering to Schlesinger, she answers her own question: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”
She says she never bothered her husband with questions about world affairs, except for one occasion when she inquired about Vietnam and got an annoyed dismissal: “Don’t remind me of that all over again.” At one point during the White House years she asked to receive intelligence reports but found they made her “bored” and depressed. “I stopped reading all those briefings and things, because I didn’t want to have to worry about anything.” Other public figures she assesses in entirely personal terms, more according to their effect on her husband’s public fortunes than anything else.
“I suppose women are terribly emotional,” she says, “and you never want to speak to anyone again who said something mean against your husband.”
Her disdain for Martin Luther King has been widely broadcast in the last few weeks. She calls him “really a tricky person.” After she was told about the infamous FBI tapes recording an orgy arranged for (and perhaps by) King in a Washington hotel, she remarked, “I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.” (She adds that when Jack heard about the tape, he said only, “Oh, well.” “He would never judge anyone in any sort of way,” she says. Certainly not in that way.) In a footnote to Mrs. Kennedy’s remark, Beschloss, who edited the transcripts for the book, writes: “The FBI tape to which Mrs. Kennedy refers was of King and his colleagues relaxing at the Willard Hotel”—a comical euphemism, but a good example of how the apparat cushions the unpleasant facts of history.
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.