Supreme Expert

Historic Jackie Kennedy Letters to Be Auctioned

            Two letters soon to be auctioned by RR Auction of New Hampshire offer a unique glimpse into Jackie Kennedy’s world shortly after the horrific assassination of her husband.  Even one original letter in the former First Lady’s own handwriting would be a historic treasure.  To possess a first and second draft is most unusual.  The fact that Mrs. Kennedy’s papers and oral history at the John F. Kennedy Library remain closed only highlights the rarity of these two missives.  The letters will be auctioned online between October 26th and November 11th. (

            The letters, addressed to Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., dispute his conclusions that Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, was “Greek” and John F. Kennedy “Roman.”  Jackie begged Schlesinger to change his description of JFK and label him “Greek.”  Most notably, the letter’s second iteration, whose copy can be found in Schlesinger’s papers at the JFK Library, removes disparaging remarks about Stevenson that Jackie included in the first draft.  She tore that note in two, presumably to dispose of it.  Initially, she wrote, “[Stevenson] may be Greek too–in the derogatory sense–I do not mean to denigrate him–I realize what he brought to American politics in 1952–but he certainly showed many weaknesses & sad deficiencies at [sic] character . . . .”
The Kennedy men–Joe, Jack, and Bobby–had little regard for Stevenson.  The worst sin in their competitive world was to be a loser, and Adlai had failed to achieve the presidency twice.  Moreover, their pragmatic, Irish-Catholic political ethos never meshed with what they considered his effete, WASPy intellectualism.  So Jackie’s negative view of Stevenson may have simply reflected the Kennedy family’s rejection of him as an indecisive and ineffectual politician.  Yet Jack’s wife maintained her own razor-sharp political instincts.  As Schlesinger once commented about her, “I realized that, underneath a veil of lovely inconsequence, she concealed tremendous awareness, an all-seeing eye and a ruthless judgment.” (Quoted in Perry, 50-51) Schlesinger’s Harvard colleague, and JFK’s mentor, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, was equally struck by Jackie’s keen judgment of human character.  She possessed, he recalled, “a very shrewd view of people and who the real people were and who the phonies were.  She also had a clear distinction as between those who were bright and those who were stupid.”  (Quoted in Perry, 51)

            So why did the former First Lady delete her more derogatory opinions of Stevenson from the second letter?  She certainly had developed her own first-hand impressions of him.  In fact, she treated him as she did many other important, older men, including Schlesinger, flirting with them as she would lean in close and utter a breathy whisper.  She would follow up with clever, bantering notes, written in her distinctive, intimate, telegraphic style.  Schlesinger was not immune to her charm while serving as special assistant to President Kennedy:  he signed his business letters to the First Lady, “With love, Arthur.”   Stevenson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in her husband’s administration, tried to comfort Jackie after JFK’s assassination in November 1963.  When she moved to New York in order to escape the intrusive memories and gawking tourists in Washington, Adlai begged her to spend an evening with him.  French newspapers photographed the two together, noting Jackie’s hand clasping his arm and speculating that they might marry.  Adlai sent the clipping to her, but she returned it to him, “for your scrapbook,” along with a playful note contained in his papers at Princeton University.  She wrote the message in April 1965, just one month before her two Schlesinger letters. 

            Clearly, Jackie reconsidered her pointed assessment of Adlai and diplomatically removed the offending passage in the letter she sent to Schlesinger dated May 28, 1965.  The date is crucial, for it was a mere seventeen months after her husband’s tragic death and the eve of what would have been his 48th birthday.  An aching sadness, along with poignant memories of her martyred husband, are present on each page.  In fact, the stationery on which she wrote the letters bears the black border that she used in her widowhood.  She always grew wistful on the days that recalled her husband’s truncated life and how he died so gruesomely in her arms that horrendous day on the streets of Dallas.  She even changed her references to him between the two letters-- from the more impersonal “JFK” in the first, to a more loving “Jack” in the second. 

            While Jacqueline Kennedy maintained a stoic facade in public after the assassination, in private she grew increasingly unhinged.  She drowned her sorrows in vodka and spent endless hours with brother-in-law Bobby tearfully reading the Greek poets.  She even questioned a Catholic priest about what would happen to her in the afterlife if she committed suicide in an attempt to be with her husband in heaven.  The disconsolate widow endlessly replayed in her mind the final seconds of her husband’s life and wondered aloud to friends if she might have saved him by reacting faster to the sound of gunshots.   Not surprisingly, she often had second thoughts about what she revealed in unguarded moments.  Her court battle with historian William Manchester over the details she had relayed to him in recorded conversations for his book The Death of a President constituted the worst example of such regrets.  (See Perry, 194-95, and Vanity Fair, Oct. 2009, for this story.)  From her application of the Camelot myth to her husband’s presidency just one week after his death, until she succumbed to cancer in 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy spent her final thirty years trying to preserve a heroic image of JFK.  “A desperate defiance of fate” is how she summarizes his life for Arthur Schlesinger in the 1965 letter.

            Jackie’s observation, in both drafts, that Lyndon Johnson, her husband’s successor, exhibited the traits of a classic Roman emperor also reveals her perceptive view of political character.  At times aggressive and vulgar, LBJ indeed employed the brutish skills of the more authoritarian leaders of the Roman empire.  Yet tape recordings reveal that he and Jackie could bill and coo to each other on the phone when they turned on the charm.  They both were masters of such political manipulation.

            Ironically, Jackie need not have worried about Adlai Stevenson’s feelings.  Six weeks after her letter to Schlesinger, Stevenson collapsed on a London sidewalk and suffered a fatal heart attack.

For more information about Jacqueline Kennedy, see my book Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier.  To find the book, please go to my website,, and click on the "Books" tab.



Michelle Obama Riffs on First Lady Themes

From policy to fashion to motherhood, Michelle Obama has hit nearly all the right notes in her first nine months as First Lady. Just ten days after her husband's historic inauguration, Mrs. Obama signaled a shift in emphasis from her conservative predecessor, Laura Bush. Standing close by in the White House's historic East Room, Michelle enthusiastically supported President Obama's signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that gives employees additional time to bring pay discrimination law suits to court. With her Harvard law degree, and previous career in public policy and management, the current First Lady is well-prepared to tackle her selected causes of public service, support for military families, and healthful nutrition.

Unlike the equally qualified Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Obama has taken care not to insert herself too boldly into the president's policy agenda. Americans draw the line between the First Lady's "pet projects" and her assuming the role of "co-president."

Yet Michelle has faced the traditional tension that inevitably develops between the president's staff and her own. In fact, in June she replaced her chief of staff with an older, more experienced friend, colleague, and mentor from Chicago, Susan Sher. The First Lady clearly hopes to achieve a more coordinated and strategic role vis-a-vis the West Wing.

Like Jacqueline Kennedy, Mrs. Obama, has reached the pinnacle of fashion and world acclaim during her state trips abroad. Whether slipping her arm around Queen Elizabeth or hugging English school-girls, the First Lady radiates warmth and compassion. Her compelling personal story of rising from working-class roots on Chicago's South Side, to becoming the first African-American First Lady, inspires women of color around the globe. No wonder her approval ratings remained in the stratosphere (79%) last spring, as her husband's began to plummet over the health-care debate. (Hillary scored a 56% approval rating at the equivalent time in her First Lady tenure.)

Not since the Kennedys has the White House been home to such a young, energetic family. Also like Jackie, Michelle has insisted on carving out "family time" and structures her day around her two children. Having her own mother in residence, however, gives Michelle the opportunity to accompany her husband to more ceremonial events than Mrs. Kennedy ever attended. Indeed, today, the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Obamas participated in the Pentagon commemoration, taking time to console the victims' families. Then the First Lady took part in a related program, urging George Washington University students to volunteer for community service. If they complete 100,000 hours of such projects in the nation's capital, she has promised to reward them by delivering the commencement address at next year's graduation.

Like the fabled jazz musicians whom Mrs. Obama invited to the White House in June to conduct workshops for students from Duke Ellington High School, the First Lady has composed her own riffs. Only occasionally has she hit a sour note or gone slightly off key. Her organic garden on the White House grounds drew protests from conventional farmers and, predictably, the pesticide industry. More embarrassing was the story that produce from her garden does not meet organic standards because of fertilizers previously used on the White House lawn. The Obamas also appeared momentarily tone deaf in jetting off to New York City for "date night." And the First Family’s vacation on tony Martha’s Vineyard last month surely struck the wrong chord with Americans who had to forgo a summer break because of the recession. With fall nearly upon us, the First Lady’s schedule will fill up with more official duties. Achieving political relevance, without controversy, should remain Mrs. Obama’s goal as the first year of her White House life comes to a close.

Teddy Kennedy: The Happy Warrior

During my five years as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, I attended graduation ceremonies each year to cheer on my friends who had received degrees.  It seemed that nearly every year I would spy Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the audience.  He was not attending commencement exercises for his own children but, rather, for one of his late brother Bobby's brood of eleven.  There "Uncle Teddy" would be with Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, celebrating her sons who received degrees from U.Va.'s Law School, which was also his and Bobby's alma mater.

At his core, Edward Kennedy was the ultimate family man.  He took to heart his father's admonition to be true to the Kennedy clan.  Yet it was his Fitzgerald genes, rather than the Kennedy DNA, that shaped Teddy's persona and destiny.  When his mother Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, at age 41, learned of her pregnancy with him, many of her friends told her she was foolish to have yet another baby, in middle age, after already producing eight Kennedy children.  Yet with her persevering nature she soldiered on, determined to remain upbeat and positive for her sake and the baby's.  "I got rather indignant and made up my mind that neither Teddy nor I was going to suffer, and [we] were going to be independent and make it in a superior fashion.  No one was going to feel sorry for Teddy or for me!"  Whether the baby was simply "hard-wired" with his mother's indomitable spirit, or was nurtured to have a sunny disposition, the last child of Rose and Joe Kennedy could have been the poster child for the "power of positive thinking" movement.

Not that he didn't have a darker side to his Irish heritage.  We all know of his drinking binges, womanizing, and irresponsible behavior--before his 1992 marriage to second wife, Victoria Reggie, seemed to place him on a straighter path.  Yet his public service bears the optimistic stamp of his maternal grandfather, John F. ("Honey Fitz") Fitzgerald.  A state legislator, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and first American-born Irish mayor of Boston, Teddy's beloved Grandpa Fitzgerald epitomized the "press-the-flesh" style of grass-roots politics.  Known for his gift of gab ("Fitzblarney," they called it), Mayor Fitzgerald wielded the personal touch of a big-city pol.  Welcoming immigrants, handing out Christmas turkeys, attending every wedding and wake, ending each rally with a rousing chorus of "Sweet Adeline," Honey Fitz passed on to Teddy the charm and mischievous streak of an Irish leprechaun.  Thus, every member of the U.S. Senate who served with Teddy Kennedy, every staff member, every friend has a story of his personal empathy--his genuine sign of caring during a joyous or sorrowful occasion.  Teddy could pound the podium, bellowing the call for liberal legislation on civil rights, health care, and immigration, but, just as effectively, utter a wry quip with a twinkle in his eye.  His hand-written notes and personal phone calls to grieving friends and colleagues are legendary.

As the patriarch-by-default of the Kennedy dynasty, the responsibility fell to Teddy to eulogize all who passed away before him.  It was a sign of his own impending demise that he could not attend his sister Eunice's funeral barely two weeks before his own.  After the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy, Teddy movingly declared that his "brother need not be idealized nor enlarged in death beyond what he was in life."  With his feet of clay, Senator Edward Kennedy should obviously not be idealized.  Yet Lyndon Johnson's call for a lasting tribute to Teddy's other assassinated brother, President John F. Kennedy, should be replicated for the cause the Massachusetts senator championed to his final days.  After the 1963 atrocity in Dallas, LBJ stood before Congress and proclaimed that no greater memorial to the fallen president would be more appropriate than passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, then bogged down in partisan mire.  Perhaps the Almighty's retribution upon Edward Kennedy for his sins was allowing him only to glimpse the promised land of meaningful health care reform.  President Obama's tribute to this happy Irish warrior, who smoothed his path to the White House, should be urging Congress to honor his life with passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Health Care Act.

To read more about Senator Kennedy's relationship with his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, see my forthcoming book, Rose: Mother of the Kennedy Image, to be published by Norton.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver: Rose Kennedy's Most Perfect Child

"I think my mother puts the fear of God in most people. She is a perfectionist." Thus did Maria Shriver, first lady of California, once describe her mother Eunice, who died August 11, 2009 at age 88. While many observers focused on comparisons between her and the legendary male members of the Kennedy clan, Eunice Kennedy Shriver can best be understood as the offspring of matriarch Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Years ago her son, Senator Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), declared, "Mother is a perfectionist." Indeed she was. Did her Catholic upbringing and convent education teach Rose to strive for pure excellence?  Or maybe the Victorian era's obsession with societal rules governed Rose's behavior. Or perhaps the high expectations that her father, "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, set for her life drove Rose to excel. Or, ironically, could it have been her loss of control to flawed husband Joe Kennedy that made her addicted to perfection? Whatever the reason, Rose attempted to perfect herself and everyone around her--with decidedly mixed results.

At Rose's 1995 funeral, a somber Eunice eulogized her mother as a loving teacher. "The mother's heart is the child's schoolroom," Eunice quoted from Henry Ward Beecher, noting that her own mother would ask, "Now where is Pakistan, Eunice?" as they studied a wall-map. At night Rose would read Little Women to Eunice and her gaggle of siblings. According to writer Susan Cheever, Louisa May Alcott's semi-autobiographical classic reflected the author's attempt to perfect the messier elements of her life. Eunice willingly accepted Rose's lessons as a gift of love. Her mother's compassion for Rosemary, her mentally handicapped sister, inspired Eunice to embrace the least gifted Kennedy and, ultimately, a life's passion of serving children and adults with intellectual challenges.

It was, then, Rose's lesson of perfection that Eunice embraced most fervently. For years Rose had worked closely with Rosemary, trying to make her a better student, a more skilled athlete, a poised young lady. How horrifying it must have been for Rose and Eunice to learn that their dear Rosemary's hard-earned progress had been utterly destroyed by a botched lobotomy that Joe Kennedy arranged without consulting his wife. Eunice would take her mother's example of perfectionistic compassion and apply it to the Special Olympics that she founded in 1962. This athletic competition for the physically and mentally challenged now includes more than 250 million athletes in 150 countries.

When Eunice went a step beyond her mother to admit publicly in 1962 that Rosemary was "mentally retarded" (the label used in those days), Rose joined in the cause, traveling around the nation and the world, raising awareness about children with mental disabilities. Rose Kennedy had the highest profile of all the women in her immediate family; her speaking for the rights of the mentally retarded always drew crowds and publicity. She explained to talk-show producers that she would appear on their programs only to discuss this issue, and she tried to control the interviews by submitting questions that should be posed to her.

When television host Mike Douglas departed from the script on his show in 1966 to ask more specific details about Rosemary, Rose shifted a bit nervously but maintained her focus. She referred to retarded children in the third person and simply explained that some are more comfortable "away" or in "boarding school" with friends who are similarly afflicted.  Rose would often say that Rosemary lived a happier life in an institution (St. Coletta's in Wisconsin) without the stress of Kennedy family competition. In 1972 Rose told her memoirist that she would explain that Rosemary's condition had resulted from an "accident." Her 1974 best-selling autobiography Times to Remember settled on the euphemistic description, "certain form of neurosurgery," to describe the lobotomy. The book earned millions of dollars for the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, established by her husband in memory of Rose's oldest son and apple of their eye, who died in World War II. Rose raised even more money for mental retardation projects by appearing on behalf of the Flame of Hope program, which employed the mentally handicapped in making scented candles and perfume. Notably, both Rose and Eunice seemed to find their voice for public advocacy on behalf of the mentally retarded just after Joseph Kennedy Sr. went mute following a devastating stroke in late 1961. He would live on for another eight years as an invalid, and he could no longer eclipse the Kennedy women.

Eunice also absorbed her Mother's profound devotion to the Catholic faith and lived it throughout her life. She continued to support the Church's anti-abortion stance even when most Catholic members of the Democratic party abandoned it. Rose sent all of the Kennedy girls to Catholic schools at least for secondary and undergraduate education. (Joe insisted that the boys attend non-Catholic institutions in order to compete with the WASP elite.) But Eunice also inherited another of her mother's traits, a propensity for gastric illness. Rose thought escaping to a milder climate would fortify Eunice's sometimes weak constitution and enrolled her in Stanford University to complete her college degree. Helping her make the transition to the West Coast, Rose assisted Eunice's move to Palo Alto and took her to have dinner with former President Herbert Hoover. No wonder Eunice always seemed at ease in approaching men of power, including her brother Jack when he became president, to ask them for support.

Of all the Kennedy girls in her generation, Eunice cared least about her appearance. Here she parted company with her mother, who tried to interest all of her girls in haute couture, attractive make-up, and sophisticated hairstyles. Rose wrote hundreds of letters to her children (boys and girls), and then grandchildren, offering advice on everything from wardrobe to grammar. Eunice was simply too busy and too much the tomboy to take time from her frenetic pace to absorb her mother's lessons on style and image. Yet, Eunice made up for her sometimes unkempt appearance with another of her mother's traits: unbounded enthusiasm. Even into her eighties, Rose played golf each day, swam in her Palm Beach pool or in Nantucket Sound off Hyannis Port, and took long walks. Only a series of strokes felled her, as they would her daughter.

Although the post-Camelot era has revealed the Kennedy family flaws, Eunice's solid marriage and successful children seem to have avoided the pitfalls of wealth and celebrity. Her devoted husband of fifty-six years, R. Sargent ("Sarge") Shriver Jr., now suffering from Alzheimer's at age 94, never achieved the political success of Eunice's brothers, but he was an ebullient contributor to the New Frontier and the Great Society that followed it. He also penned the warmest and most loving letters to Rose of any Kennedy in-law. From the campaign trail in 1972, Sarge, who was the vice-presidential candidate on the doomed McGovern ticket, wrote to her: "I deeply appreciate your enthusiasm, generosity, courage, and loyalty. . . . I do truly love you and admire you and believe you are one of the great women--great people--of the world."  Noting the occasion of his own mother's 90th birthday, Sarge concluded, "I shall be thinking of all the blessings God has given me--of which my mother, you, and Eunice are the most precious of all." From a passage in the Book of Proverbs read at Rose's funeral, daughter-in-law Ethel Kennedy proclaimed, "Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her; 'Many women have done excellently but you surpass them all'. . . . Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." The fruit of Rose's and Eunice's labors is indeed the praise that followed them to the gates of a heaven that they were convinced awaited women of perfect faith.

See my forthcoming book, Rose: Mother of the Kennedy Image, to be published by W. W. Norton. It is based on recently released papers of Rose Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

Civic Engagement: Be Careful What You Wish For

A decade ago, as voter turnout in presidential elections continued to plummet, social scientists and politicians took up the cause of civic engagement.  Harvard Professor Robert Putnam published his landmark book Bowling Alone to explain that Americans had become socially and politically isolated.  As a result, they were depleting the “social capital” that should be invested in public life.  Yet Professor Morris Fiorina of Stanford University warned that the call to public engagement entails an unintended consequence, namely, extremism.  Those who heed such calls are often on the far ends of the ideological spectrum.  They take to the streets or storm town meetings, exhibiting the passion that spurs their participation. 

Such participants in the political process display the very traits our American Founders feared from the masses.  Although the Founding Fathers, through the pen of James Madison, established our First Amendment guarantee of free speech and assembly, they checked the impact of those freedoms on government and policy.  Those who disrupt public discussions of the current health care reform proposals loudly proclaim that they are simply participating in American “democracy.”  That is their first and most fundamental misperception.  The United States is a republic, not a democracy.  The Founders feared the whims and passions of the mob and created, again through Madison’s genius, a representative government where the people were removed from direct influence on policy.  In turn, our constitutional system checks the foibles of the governors through stratified levels of government (federal, state, and local) and separation of powers (executive, legislative, and judicial branches) within each level.

Where contemporary lawmakers have gone wrong is in diminishing the brilliant Madisonian bulwarks between them and their constituents.  From constant appearances on camera, radio, Internet, and in person, members of Congress have overexposed themselves. Familiarity has bred contempt, not respect.  No wonder public engagement now looks more like “Extreme Fight Night” than republican debate.  Lawmakers would be wise to pull the plug on such spectacles that fail to advance the discussion and only further erode their authority.


April 2014

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