A woman of tradition, and change The gates close on Camelot JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS, 1929-1994

May 21, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- One morning, more than 30 years ago, a moving truck loaded with antiques pulled up to a White House service entrance. The driver was helped in unloading by a Smithsonian curator named James Ketchum and by another person -- a quiet, dark-haired woman in a pullover sweater and jeans.

The driver asked Mr. Ketchum who she was.

"The first lady," came the astonishing reply.

And so she was.

Jacqueline Kennedy was the woman who embodied the nation's traditional past -- and its liberating future. "Redecorating" the White House was how they phrased it at the time. But what she really did was read every book in the Library of Congress about the White House, haggle with dealers and philanthropists for long-lost antiques -- and meet the delivery trucks to inspect the wares.

By the time she died Thursday night at age 64, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had outlived two husbands, explored every corner of the world, raised two children, had glamorous careers, sailed the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, showed horses, saved historic buildings, painted pictures, edited books and written a best-selling White House guidebook.

But it was the job she held for only a thousand days that inspired women on several continents and carved her name into American history. Jacqueline Kennedy, along with Pat Nixon, was among the last in the line of traditional first ladies that began with Dolley Madison. That role consisted of being a helpmate, a hostess and an inspirational role model for American women.

And yet Mrs. Kennedy was also one of the first of the modern first ladies. She was a woman of independent means, had an education that was equal, or superior, to her husband's, and she took on a visible national project.

Mrs. Kennedy's project seemed safe for the times -- she directed the restoration and refurbishing of the White House. Nevertheless, it was a project she researched, directed and pushed for -- despite initial opposition from the White House staff and the president himself. Moreover, her scholarly approach to the job has been praised by subsequent residents of the White House and historians for helping rekindle historic preservation.

"From Jackie forward," said Edith Mayo, a museum curator who put together the current Smithsonian exhibit on first ladies, "it's virtually impossible to have a first lady who doesn't have some kind of serious project that she promotes while in the White House."

Whether she knew she was a transitional figure in American history is anybody's guess -- she herself never said -- but those who worked with her reported that she had a keen sense of her place in the lineage of first ladies.

"She reminded us, 'Our obligation goes from Abigail Adams to the present,' " Mr. Ketchum recalled.

As she scoured the nation for historical treasure that belonged in the White House and dickered with art collectors and philanthropists over price -- none of the costs were borne by taxpayers -- those who worked with her were struck by her sense of history.

Other presidential families felt her presence just by living in the house she did so much to restore.

"Jimmy and I were touched by the delightful and gracious atmosphere that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis created in the White House," Rosalynn Carter recalled this week. "The charm of each room has been permanently enhanced as a result of her contributions."

Mrs. Kennedy remained mindful of her obligations to those who came after she left the White House. In 1964, she wrote an achingly personal letter to Richard M. Nixon, the longtime Kennedy rival who was still nursing the wounds of a crushing political defeat in 1962, encouraging him to persevere and reminding him, "We never value life enough."

When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at the White House with a 13-year-old daughter, the former first lady, by then known as Jacqueline Onassis, advised her on how to provide as normal an environment as possible for a president's child.

Mrs. Onassis did more than offer tips. Last summer, she took the entire Clinton family yachting off Martha's Vineyard. The day left President Clinton nearly giddy: His own dream of the presidency had taken root in the Rose Garden when he was 16 and he met President John F. Kennedy.

"As much as anything else today, I am grateful for her incredible generosity to Hillary and to Chelsea," a saddened Mr. Clinton said yesterday. "The way she shared her thoughts on everything from how to raise children in the White House to ideas about historic preservation to her favorite current books."

"She once explained the importance of spending time with family, and said, 'If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much,' " added Mrs. Clinton, her voice husky with emotion. "She will always be more than a great first lady. She was a great woman and a great friend, and all of us will miss her very much."

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