A week after her husband’s assassination in November, 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to the writer Theodore White. Passionately declaring that she didn’t want John F. Kennedy immortalised by “bitter” journalists who didn’t appreciate him, she told White that she had come up with her own metaphor for his presidency. She had chosen it, she said, from a line in a Broadway show song that her husband had loved: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot, from one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
That interview, published in Life magazine, was a stroke of myth-making genius. In the years that followed, the first generation of Kennedy biographers and eulogisers picked up the Camelot theme and ran with it again and again. Kennedy was remembered for his youth, his promise, his genius. “Camelot”, that “brief shining moment” when the young, the beautiful and the aristocratic worked in the White House, became the symbol of optimism, energy, even of hope itself.
Perhaps inevitably, the next wave of biographers and critics set out to take apart the Camelot legend. In recent years, President Kennedy has been excoriated for his naivete in Cuba and Southeast Asia, attacked for consorting with the Mafia, and pilloried for the constant stream of affairs he conducted while in office. With the passage of time, “Camelot” has come to seem tarnished, hypocritical, tawdry.
Now, however, we have Sally Bedell Smith, part of a third wave of biographers who are interested neither in the Kennedy myth nor in its debunking, but are intent, rather, in finding out what actually happened during the Kennedy presidency. Smith’s role in this third wave is openly apolitical: This is not a book for world history buffs, or for anyone who wants to find out what really happened during the Cuban missile crisis.
In describing the private world of Jack and Jackie, it is still possible to be even-handed. Smith doesn’t skimp on Jack’s girlfriends or on Jackie’s snottiness, and this book’s most important revelation is of the psychiatrist with whom Jackie discussed, among other things, Jack’s sexual inadequacies. And yet what emerges of their lives is still so mesmerisingly attractive that it is hard not to conclude that at least some of the Camelot myth deserved to stick after all.
Here we have, for example, a portrait of a first lady who danced the twist, “wearing a white satin sheath”, all night at a White House dinner dance; whose passion for classical decoration inspired a whole generation of Washington women to take up the study of French furniture; who set up a schoolroom in the White House to educate her children and the children of a few select friends; whose famous taste in clothes was actually her own, and not created by a public relations company. To put it bluntly, it is simply impossible to imagine writing any of those things about any of the subsequent first ladies.
Nor is it possible to think of a subsequent president who consorted so easily with the intellectuals and poets of his day. Bill Clinton had Barbra Streisand to dinner, but it wasn’t the same. George W. Bush can hardly disguise his loathing for state dinners of any kind, and certainly never dances the twist all night. The Kennedy White House really did possess a spontaneity and genuine good taste that has never been equalled since, and perhaps can’t be: what it takes to become president of the United States, nowadays, are qualities that could politely be described as the opposite of spontaneity and good taste.
Smith’s book is a perfect summer beach book, and an easy, entertaining read – but it also tells a deeper story about the American presidency, and how profoundly it has changed.