Jackie and the Girls

Mrs. Kennedy’s JFK problem—and ours
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John F. Kennedy Library/Getty

She lived her life dependent on the kindness of sadists—first Black Jack Bouvier, who got too drunk to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day; then John Kennedy, whose lasting gift to her was a bimbo eruption that won’t quit half a century on; then Aristotle Onassis, who covered his yacht’s bar stools with the skin of whale testicles and hardballed her on the prenup—but she could hold her own, Jackie Kennedy. She never played all her aces. Even in the recently released tape recordings of her conversations with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—talks that occurred less than four months after her husband’s murder—you realize that she was never playing a short game, that she wasn’t a person who could be crushed by a day or a month or a year of bad news or bad press. She was playing a long game, and against all odds she’s still winning it. She had her eye on what she grandly called History, a concept large enough to encompass both her interest in 18th-century France and the necessity of maintaining a complicated fiction—at once face-saving and humiliating—about the nature of her marriage. It’s not a tissue of lies, but it is a tissue, one that has been rent so many times that it should be nothing more than dust motes by now, but she was a woman who brought every one of her formidable gifts to bear when it came to the subject of John Kennedy; and we’re no match for her.

There she is on those tapes, alive as you and me, with the Babykins voice that her in-laws teased her for, tipsy on cocktails, chain-smoking, whispering at times, giggling at others, eerily composed, understandably adamant about the vastness of her late husband’s mission, but also surprisingly clear on its details. Dean Rusk turned out to be a disappointment at State because he was “terribly scared to make a decision”; Udall had been given Interior because Jack owed him for Arizona, and he had made the most of it—“he really cares about conservation and all that.” Johnson was completely useless, much given to taking boondoggles to irrelevant places; he came home from a tour of Finland with a bunch of glass birds that he passed out as souvenirs, “Lyndon” painted on every one.

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But what she’s really doing on those tapes—the reason they so easily lent themselves to two hours of Diane Sawyer in prime-time ecstasy last fall and the reason that, bundled with their bound transcripts, they made such an unlikely best seller—is telling us a beautiful story, the one that goes with the pictures. You know the pictures. They’re the ones we’re still looking at, still marveling over, the ones that fuse some powerful ideas together and that make us fall in love all over again with a family we’ve never met and specifically with the man at the center of that family, who was apparently willing—eager—to contain the most vital and alluring of his protean energies within it. These photographs have had an outsized effect on our assessment of JFK’s presidency, and our collective feelings about them have served as his magic fishbone, getting him out of one scrape or another as the years pass by and the revelations and reassessments pile up.

In 2011, Caroline Kennedy appeared on the David Letterman show, her first visit, and Dave was thrilled, almost starstruck, to have this singular woman sitting beside him. There were any number of things they could have talked about, but what Dave was dying to do was look at some of those old pictures with her. He’d had two of the most famous of them mounted on black cardboard, and before he held them up to the camera, he apologized for taking up her time with them.

“These are pictures you’ve had all your life,” he said, tapping the stack eagerly and grasping for words. Maybe, in fact, she was tired of looking at them—“but do you mind if I show these?”

“No,” she said graciously, laughing in her easy, appealing way, conducting perfectly the job she was born to and has never shirked; “but everybody else is probably tired of looking at them.”

Hardly.

“These pictures are important to me,” Letterman said with great seriousness, almost offended by the suggestion, “and to everybody in my generation, certainly—and, I think, a larger number than that.”

What were these 50-year-old pictures, the ones that Caroline could confidently predict were thoroughly familiar to his large television audience and that Letterman called so important to him, to his generation, to “a larger number than that”?

Pictures of two children playing in their father’s office: John crouching under the big desk, peeking out from the secret panel; Caroline and her brother dancing on the lush carpet. In the background, their delighted father looks on, clapping his hands, as though nothing on his agenda could be more pressing than these hijinks.

Suffer the little children to come unto me is the unwritten caption of all these saintly images. The Soviets can kiss off for five minutes; the blacks can hold their water. John-John has an adorable new hiding place, and the most powerful person in the world is fully absorbed by it. These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own. It’s the father as a person of great importance in some vaguely apprehended larger world where the grown-ups live, and where he takes care of essential and necessary matters but will gladly put all of that aside to spend an extra moment with his precious children.

“There must be a great deal of good in a man who could love a child so much,” is what the Atlanta biddies said, forgivingly, of Rhett Butler when he set out to redeem his reputation by showing off how much he adored Bonnie Blue, his little daughter. Rhett’s sins were many, but no one can resist an alpha male fussing over a small child, and his PR campaign did the trick. JFK’s family photos have done much the same for him over the years. With each new allegation (many of them witheringly well-supported) of risk-taking, womanizing, criminal behavior, overweening self-interest, and/or simple incompetence thrown up against matters of planetary importance, the vast legion of Kennedy fans are rocked backward. But only for a moment. Because by the end of the nightly-news report featuring a heartbroken anchor chewing over the broken glass of the latest bad news, there’s always the same triumphant finish—the montage of photographs of Jack playing with Caroline and John, smiling at his pretty wife, confirming all over again the things that, in our childish and stubborn way, we insist on believing about him.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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