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.