You might have thought that Kennedy kitsch was not likely to proceed much further beyond The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, edited by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (2005), or that the gold standard had long ago been established with Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, edited by Kenneth O’Donnell (1972). But you would be wrong.
Here are two volumes of letters of condolence written to Mrs. Kennedy in the wake of her husband’s assassination 47 years ago. Evidently the editors are unaware that presidents receive thousands of missives a day, and have been deluged with correspondence from strangers since the founding of the republic. They seem similarly ignorant of the fact that Americans have always written moving, thoughtful letters to the widows of assassinated presidents—Ida McKinley, Lucretia Garfield, Mary Todd Lincoln—or that Queen Victoria, whose husband had died four years earlier, wrote an especially memorable note to Mrs. Lincoln: “No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life,—my Stay—my All,—What your sufferings must be …”
To these editors, it seems, just as John F. Kennedy’s two-and-a-half-year presidency was a Periclean age in the life of the nation, and that the Kennedy assassination was unique in American history, his death inspired correspondence as never before in our national experience. Which, of course, is untrue. The same instincts that impelled ordinary Americans to write to Jackie Kennedy—grief, sympathy, empathy, advice—had inspired their ancestors in 1901, in 1881, and in 1865.
Of the two volumes, Dear Mrs. Kennedy is marginally more interesting, since it includes a fair proportion of letters from famous people (Konrad Adenauer, Charles Van Doren, Babe Paley, Julius Nyerere, Oleg Cassini, Benjamin Spock) who write with a wide variety of motives, sometimes amusingly, sometimes not. And the letters are much to be preferred to the explanatory text, since the editors subscribe to the anachronistic view that, prior to the New Frontier, the United States was a cultural wasteland (“The new Kennedy ethos was both meritocratic and elitist. Jackie Kennedy brought a world of refinement to Washington”) and that no artist or scholar had ever crossed the White House threshold before 1961. This assertion would have surprised John Quincy Adams, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Kennedy’s predecessor, General Eisenhower, whose office was frequently visited by Robert Frost—more often, in fact, than the Kennedy Oval Office.
The shortcomings of Ellen Fitzpatrick, editor of Letters to Jackie, are, perhaps, more malign. The Carpenter Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, and a frequent talking head on PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Fitzpatrick introduces her anthology with a tendentious essay on the Kennedy presidency and assassination that sets the stage with these sentences:
The Dallas leg of Kennedy’s trip inspired some anxiety among the President’s advisers. Less than a month before, right-wing demonstrators in Dallas had roughed up Adlai Stevenson, disrupting his speech celebrating United Nations Day with boos and jeers and subjecting the UN ambassador to physical violence …. Leaflets circulating in Dallas the day before Kennedy’s visit depicted him as a criminal wanted for treason. Disseminating familiar criticism leveled by the John Birch Society, the handbill accused Kennedy of “turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations,” offering “support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots” … It included an old smear alleging Kennedy had a previous marriage and divorce and was lying to the public about it.
The uninformed reader (or editor) might reasonably conclude that Kennedy had been killed in Dallas in an atmosphere of right-wing bigotry (a conclusion Professor Fitzpatrick does nothing to dispel) and it is worth recording that the name of the President’s actual assassin—left-wing activist, peace demonstrator, and ex-Soviet defector Lee Harvey Oswald—appears nowhere in Letters to Jackie. This is the kind of intellectual dishonesty that has done so much to distort the standards of academic history in the United States, and ought to inspire similarly grief-stricken letters to Professor Fitzpatrick’s publisher.