jackie kennedy shapes her husband's legacy -- 1/9/15

Today's selection -- from Landslide by Jonathan Darman. Throughout John Kennedy's presidency and after his assassination, his wife Jacqueline (Jackie) Kennedy played a dominant role in shaping the Kennedy legacy. One such instance was the birth of the Camelot metaphor, which she conveyed to journalist and Kennedy favorite Theodore White just days after her husband's death:

"The acclaimed journalist Theodore White was in the chair at his dentist's office when he was brought an urgent message: President Kennedy's widow was trying to reach him. He rushed home and called the former First Lady, who was still at Hyannis Port. On the phone, Jackie told White she had some things she wanted to tell the nation. She hoped he would be the journalist to help her. Might he be able to come up from New York to the Cape that afternoon? She would be happy to send a Secret Service limousine.

"White called the editors of Life magazine, where he was a contract writer. The latest edition of the magazine was already being printed -- a giant commemorative issue, with page after page of vivid photographs from the funeral ceremonies -- and holding open the press run into Saturday would cost the magazine $30,000 an hour. But this was an incredible story -- Jackie's first interview since the assassination. The editors agreed to wait, and White hurried up to Massachusetts.

"He arrived in Hyannis Port late in the evening, in a driving rainstorm. Ushered into the house, he found Jackie waiting for him in black slacks and a beige pullover sweater. She was 'without tears,' White would say, 'drained white of face.' She looked at him plaintively: 'What can I do for you?' she asked softly. 'What shall I say?'

"It was she, however, who had summoned White to the meeting.

"And it was she who would control the conversation and the story. Starting in, White recalled something she'd said to him earlier on the phone, a concern she'd expressed about how history would remember her husband. He wondered if she might expand on that. Instead, she launched into something else entirely -- a graphic, detailed narrative of the events in Dallas and the moments after:

Then Jack turned back so neatly, his last expression was so neat ...

I could see a piece of his skull coming off. It was fleshcolored, not white ...

I kept bending over him saying, Jack, can you hear me? I love you, Jack ...

Those big Texas interns kept saying, Mrs. Kennedy, you come with us ... but I said, I'm not leaving.

"White listened in growing confusion and dread. Jackie clearly needed to get these details out of her, but they were too much for the grieving nation, too soon. Was this the reason she had summoned him? He looked at the clock. Midnight was fast approaching, and the editors of Life were waiting. Where was the story he was to write?

"But the former First Lady knew what she was doing. 'There's one thing I wanted to say,' she said, shifting away from the horrid assassination scene. 'I keep thinking of a line from a musical comedy. ... At night before we'd go to sleep ... we had an old Victrola. Jack liked to play some records and the song he loved most came at the end of this record:

'Don't let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.'

"That word -- Camelot -- no one had attached it to the Kennedy administration before. But how perfectly it fit. Camelot, the mythical capital of King Arthur's court, a place removed from constraints of time and geography, a place removed from the squalid ordinariness of mortal life itself. Camelot, home to the beautiful Queen Guinevere, fated to love King Arthur and to lose him and mourn him. Camelot, the poets' symbol of the ancient bond between love predestined doom: Oh brother, had you known our Camelot, built by old kings, age after age, so old the King himself had fears that it would fall. Camelot, the city of lore, where knights of the Round Table dreamed of the Holy Grail and eternal life.

"Camelot, not Dallas, was what Jackie wanted White to remember that night. When she'd finished talking, he stole away to a servant's room and quickly pulled together a draft that had Camelot as central theme. It was late when he'd finished, but Jackie was still awake, waiting. He handed her a copy of his story. Then he hurried to the kitchen, where he dictated the story to his editor over the telephone.

"Soon it was two in the morning. In the kitchen, White haggled with his editor, who worried that he was overplaying the Camelot theme. As they spoke, Jackie entered the room. Listening to the argument, she shook her head -- Camelot had to stay. White continued to resist the editor's entreaties, and after a time he prevailed.

"Jackie handed her draft to White. She'd marked it up heavily with her own edits and additions. After the mention of Camelot, she had amended her comments to make her meaning more explicit. Now there was an expanded quotation: 'There will be other great presidents and the Johnsons have been so kind to me but there will never be a Camelot again.' And at the end of the draft, White found an entirely new sentence the former First Lady had written in pencil in her own neat handwriting, her own end to the story: 'And all she could think was to tell people there will never be that Camelot
again!' "


Jonathan Darman


Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America


Random House


2014 by Jonathan Darman


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