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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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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. 

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