They look like a couple of gorgeous, dressed-up kids who happen to have been chosen to run the world. “I mean you did again feel like two children,” Jackie Kennedy remembers of the morning after her husband’s inauguration. “Think of yourselves sitting on Lincoln’s bed!”
The Kennedys were Catholic, but privacy was their other religion. They never kissed or showed affection in public. They did not discuss their personal lives. Jackie went to court more than once to protect herself from publicity. So in spite of everything that has been written about the Kennedys, the portrait delivered in Jackie’s famous whispery voice in interviews with her friend Arthur Schlesinger released last week, is our first real look at the private lives of people whose public lives are so achingly familiar.
She was one of the youngest first ladies ever. Educated and multilingual at 31, she had a beauty and education so exotic that people sometimes asked if she could speak English. He was a Gemini who told his wife that his best attribute was curiosity and his worst irritability. Jackie, although she felt that a wife’s job was to provide a comforting home for her husband, had a laser-like discernment and a sharp tongue. Indira Gandi was a prune, she decided, and Martin Luther King a phony. She demurely tells Schlesinger that she took all her opinions from her husband, but she obviously had plenty of her own.
An obsessive reader, Jack Kennedy read while shaving and even while eating. He was in physical pain a great deal of the time—he had courted her on crutches. Jack had the habits of a well-bred boy—changing into his pajamas for a daily nap, saying his prayers at bedside—and the forgiving, conciliatory instincts of a much older man—instincts which stood him in good stead as a leader, especially during the Cuban missile crisis. The day before he was assassinated, Jackie recalls, she complained that she hated blowhard Texas Gov. John Connally. Her husband rubbed her back and crooned, “You mustn’t say that, you mustn’t say that. If you say…that you hate someone, then the next day you’ll act as if you hated him. We’ve come down here to Texas to heal everything up.”
The White House years were the happiest time of their lives, Jackie tells Schlesinger, so happy that she had dubbed them Camelot after the light-hearted Lerner and Loewe musical that she and Jack used to listen to before bedtime. They were in love in the serious way that people fell in love in those days before no-fault divorce. During the Cuban missile crisis some Washington men sent their families away to supposedly safer places. Jackie pleaded not to go. “Please I just want to be on the lawn when it happens,” she told her husband. “I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too—than live without you.”
When they felt depressed, instead of getting a Lexapro prescription, they went riding or sailing or they just damn well forgot about it and moved on.
Watching them now as they greet heads of state, give speeches, and horse around with their kids, feels like looking through a window into a lost world—a world before memoir, before addiction and recovery, before low self-esteem and the rhythm of debasement, confession, and redemption which has become the American grain. Today, their issues would be addressed with an ocean of prescription drugs and a boatload of 12-step programs. He was living on pain meds and his sexual acting out was famous even while he was still alive. She had serious Adult Children of Alcoholics problems—she had banned her father from her wedding because he was drunk. Yet Jack and Jackie—undiagnosed and untreated—exude a kind of magnificent grace and courage that’s visible even in grainy old television clips.
When they felt depressed, instead of getting a Lexapro prescription, they went riding or sailing or they just damn well forgot about it and moved on. They weren’t thinking of their private selves all the time; they were thinking of how to help the rest of us with their public selves. During the two worst days of her life, Jacqueline planned a funeral that is still an iconic series of images of mourning. She knew the immense power of surfaces. In our world we scorn surfaces. Superficial has become a dirty word.
I listened to Jack Kennedy’s famous call for service, “Ask…what you can do for your country,” in a barn in Vermont where I was at boarding school. My generation was electrified by his leadership. In the 50 years since, we have become a far more democratized culture. In those days a cat could look at a king; now every cat is a king. Everything the Kennedys said seems powerful and precious because there was so much they did not say. We knew very little about them and they weren’t about to tell us either—they were our Gods. Are secrets the key to great leadership? Can we be led by someone who is a mere human with daughters who long for a puppy, a live-in mother-in-law, and trouble quitting smoking? We have brought our Gods down to earth these days; these interviews might make us wish we hadn’t.