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. (www.rrauction.com)
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, www.baperry.com, and click on the "Books" tab.
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.
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.