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Sally Bedell Smith writes about the Private World of the Kennedy White House
Sally Bedell Smith writes about the Private World of the Kennedy White House
In the court of the Kennedys
By ANDREW COHEN
Saturday, June 19, 2004 - Page D12
Grace and Power:
The Private World of the Kennedy White House
By Sally Bedell Smith
Random House, 608 pages, $39.95
On July 11, 1961, the president of the United States gave a state dinner in honour of the president of Pakistan. It was no ordinary state dinner. The venue was Mount Vernon, the storied plantation of George Washington on the Potomac River. The guests were ferried from Washington in four boats, each with a trio of musicians, and greeted with mint juleps in silver stirrup cups. The Continental Fife and Drum Corps performed military drills; later, the National Symphony Orchestra played Mozart and Gershwin.
The dinner was the most memorable hosted by John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The point was to impress the Pakistanis. The real impression, though, was made on the American public, which was dazzled by this youthful couple who represented vigour and style after eight years of the somnolence of Dwight David Eisenhower.
Only six months in power, Jack and Jackie were already establishing an aura of elegance and intellect. Jackie bristled when The New York Herald Tribune compared the dinner unfavourably to the "grandeur of the French court at Versailles," but a touch of Versailles was what she wanted that evening. Indeed, during their less than three years in power, a royal court is what the Kennedys effectively created -- in the company they kept, the style they set and the conventions they flouted.
The Kennedy Court is the idea at the heart of Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House. The point isn't that John Kennedy was Louis XIV or an absolute monarch. He wasn't. But not since Thomas Jefferson, the great polymath of the early 19th century, was the presidency this elevated and aristocratic. "The Kennedys and their circle set out ambitiously, almost grandiosely, to create an America in their own image and according to their own tastes," writes Sally Bedell Smith, the biographer of William Paley, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Princess Diana. "To a remarkable degree they succeeded, leaving behind a more assertive nation, infused with a vision and an aesthetic . . ."
This is a sensational portrait of the Kennedys in power -- original in concept, exhaustive in research, judicious in approach and lovely in expression. In a field of cheap imitation (author Edward Klein's latest slender book on Jackie borrows shamelessly from his others), Smith has written something lively and original. Mining unpublished letters, diaries and journals, coaxing candour from friends, associates and lovers, some now dead, Smith goes where others have gone, but gets far more. Surprisingly, she finds still more to say about the Kennedys. Such is the range of Grace and Power that it makes many of the memoirs, biographies and histories of the last 40 years now seem incomplete or incorrect.
Why is this book different from the others? It begins with that idea. Smith is writing a social history of the Kennedys, re-creating the White House of Jack and Jackie Kennedy as Doris Kearns Goodwin recreated the White House of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt a few years ago in her magisterial No Ordinary Time.
Smith maintains her focus relentlessly, beginning the story shortly before the inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961 and ending shortly after the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. She touches on Cuba, Berlin, Laos and Alabama, but they are only part of the narrative. This is fundamentally about personality, which isn't to say it is frivolous. Grace and Power accepts the theory of "the great man of history," which JFK -- who read, wrote and made history -- embraced, believing that people shape events rather than the other way around.
In the White House, the sun revolves around the president and the first lady. The supporting cast includes family (Robert Kennedy, JFK's closest confidant, and Lee Bouvier Radziwill, Jackie's sister); speechwriters (Arthur Schlesinger, Theodore Sorensen); cabinet secretaries (Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon); friends (LeMoyne Billings, Charles Spalding, Charles Bartlett, Bunny Mellon; the brain trust (John Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy); courtiers (Dave Powers, Letitia Baldridge, Nancy Tuckerman). There are also statesmen, diplomats, politicians, journalists, artists and entertainers, as well as mistresses and paramours.
These aren't names drawn from the social register. They are so important to the story that Smith lists her dramatis personae at the beginning and revisits them at the end. In between, she explores the relations between them and the Kennedys, and between each other. She shows how JFK gently manipulated them through creative tension to advance his political agenda. What emerges is a rich portrait of life in Washington on the eve of the sexual revolution, at the dawn of the civil rights movement and at the high noon of the Cold War.
Smith describes a complicated marriage of love, guile and infidelity. Yet she suspends moral judgment, and in all things she weighs the evidence carefully. (For instance, as an illustration of her judiciousness, she finds that JFK didn't make that much-heralded first assignation of his presidency on the night of his inauguration at a Georgetown party.) Jackie knew about her husband's philandering (Smith finds more lovers) and Jack knew that she didn't really care, and may even have had affairs of her own. Both, in a sense, lived as libertines, among libertines.
But Jackie cared enough to call a cardiologist regularly to discuss improving their sex life. And she got back at her husband by refusing to host official functions as first lady, taking four-day weekends foxhunting, sleeping late, vacationing with wealthy Europeans and accepting only roles that interested her, such as restoring the White House, her greatest achievement.
At the age of 31 in 1961, Jackie spoke French, knew French history and literature, understood interior design and the decorative arts. She was inspired by Madame de Maintenon, famous for her salon, and Madame de Recamier, famous for her wit. Jackie had impeccable taste and the White House would come to reflect that.
The Kennedy Court had all the classical elements: residences in Virginia, Palm Beach, Cape Cod and Newport; great wealth and pedigree, drawing others of the same ilk; a retinue of enablers, jesters and retainers; affairs, ambition, ego and intrigue enough to fill Versailles.
Oh, the lives they led in the White House in those years! On a typical day, the scribes craft speeches spiced with wit and historical reference (count them in JFK's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1960). The sages (there were 15 Rhodes Scholars) discuss exploring space, establishing the Peace Corps, restoring the grandeur of Washington, curbing the arms race and integrating the University of Mississippi. The journalists report some things and not others (because you didn't then), often compromising themselves. The house couturier designs clothes for Jackie that women everywhere copy. The president swims in his pool with nubile secretaries, listens to the music of Camelot and reads (he and Jackie devour books). He makes love whenever he can to whomever he can. His approach to women, Smith says, is less that of a misogynist than a narcissist; if his advances are refused, he smiles with the confidence of a Lothario who knows satisfaction isn't far away.
At night, there are intimate dinners for six or eight, dances featuring outsized drinks and imported beauties, and banquets for Nobel Laureates. The revelry goes to four o'clock in the morning, the guests dance the Twist, and there is laughter, repartee and flirtation, for humour and conversation are almost as important as sex. The next morning, everyone is at work. On tamer nights, the tribunes of the New Frontier gather for seminars on religion and history, play touch football or take hikes.
This White House is "a deeply human place," Smith says, and it is deeply affecting. Marriages fail. People get sick from exhaustion. Lives fall apart. Some disciples, such as Kenneth O'Donnell, Ted Sorensen and LeMoyne Billings, never recover from JFK's death.
For all of them, and for the United States, it was a thousand days of crisis and danger and duty and excellence. The moment still fascinates today, across the dim decades, because we have seen nothing like it since. Packaged presi- dents come today without eloquence, elegance, memory or a sense of history. The reign of the Kennedys had all of that, and grace and power, too. So does this dazzling book.
Andrew Cohen, a former Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail, teaches history and international affairs at Carleton University. His book While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, was a finalist for the Governor-General's Literary Award for non-fiction in 2003.