A first lady's elegance elevated city, presidency

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

May 21, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- By today's standards of a politically activist first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis never would have qualified.

She did not, as Hillary Rodham Clinton does today, lead a campaign for a major segment of her husband's legislative agenda, nor did she associate much with political people, as today's First Lady does.

Yet in her own way, in the days before feminism was an aggressive and easily identifiable political force in the country, Jackie Kennedy played a significant role in shaping the image and style of the Kennedy administration.

In doing so, she contributed greatly to the political popularity attained by her husband, first in life and then in death. In what came to be called the Camelot years, she was indisputably the queen, regarded almost as royalty and fulfilling the role elegantly in her regal manner.

If she was distant to the public and even to most of the political figures around John F. Kennedy, she played a critical role in elevating the presidency, and the nation's cultural and artistic tastes, with the social climate she created at her White House. She painstakingly redecorated the old presidential mansion and then brought to it some of the country's, and the world's, most accomplished artists of literature, music and art. John Kennedy saluted her work in one dinner toast in which he said never had so much brilliance been gathered in one room of the White House "since Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

The first lady of the early 1960s was such an object of attention in the fashion world, where she set a style of understatement, that when she traveled to France with her husband, the president introduced himself as the man "who has accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."

She spoke French on that trip, and Spanish on another to South America. But her distaste for politicking was well known, and she campaigned with her husband in this country only reluctantly and relatively infrequently.

Thus there was considerable irony in the fact that she was riding next to him in the motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when he was struck down by an assassin. The trip was undertaken in part to help end Democratic Party factional feuding in Texas as Kennedy prepared to seek re-election in 1964.

The courage Jacqueline Kennedy demonstrated on that day, and immediately afterward, probably made a more indelible mark on American and world memories than anything she did before or later.

Her decision to walk behind her husband's casket, accompanied by many of the world's great leaders, and having her young son John Jr. salute as it passed by the steps of St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington, captured the poignancy of the end of the Kennedy presidency, and the beginning of the Kennedy legend -- or myth, as his detractors would put it.

If Jackie Kennedy was no Hillary Clinton, nor an Eleanor Roosevelt, neither was she a Bess Truman, a Mamie Eisenhower or a Pat Nixon -- the classic silent woman behind the president who remained in the shadows. She was a celebrity first lady whose social connections dazzled many average Americans and turned off many others.

After having helped establish the glamour around the memory of her late husband, she disappointed many Americans in and out of the her social stratum with her marriage to Aristotle Onassis in 1968.

But the aura survived that shock and so did she, in terms of the place she held on the national scene -- a reserved, even shy, woman once pulled out of her element and onto the political stage, then obliged to play a final, shattering act as first lady with supreme control and grace.

The woman who succeeded her as first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, picked up the mantle just as her husband did for the fallen president, undertaking a highly visible and, for a time, successful project of national beautification. But there was no Camelot in FTC either Lady Bird or Lyndon Johnson, and the contrast with the Kennedys was clear.

It can be argued that Jackie Kennedy, like her husband the president, was more style than substance. But the style in both cases helped create an aura of youth and vitality in the country at a time it seemed to be suffering from tired blood. The presence of another young and vigorous first couple in the White House, without the Kennedy elegance, is not likely to restore that aura that marked the John and Jackie Kennedy years.

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