Hype over Jackie proves little succeeds like excess

May 25, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

In America in the '90s, nothing succeeds like excess.

Thus it was not enough to give Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis her proper place in history after her death. It was necessary to elevate it.

And so I heard a radio newsman say in solemn tones on the day of her burial: "The queen of Camelot is being laid to rest next to her husband and their eternal flame."

Their eternal flame? I thought it was Jack's eternal flame. I thought he was elected and died for his country. Jackie, as I recall, redecorated the White House. We don't give eternal flames for that. At least not yet.

And then, the next day, there was this in the New York Times: "The historian Michael Beschloss argued that Mrs. Onassis was one of the two most important First Ladies of the century, the other, in his view, having been Eleanor Roosevelt."

This statement seemed so overblown that I sought out what Beschloss actually said or at least what he said on CNN Friday: "Eleanor Roosevelt's following came from the fact that she was really a political leader -- she operated to Franklin Roosevelt's left; fought for blacks, many other underprivileged groups in this society. Jacqueline Kennedy operated in the other half of the First Lady's role, and that is the ceremonial side."

Which is fair. Jackie lived in a world of ceremony. Her finest public moments were those four days after her husband's death, days filled with ceremony: Back from Dallas, she had the Library of Congress research Abraham Lincoln's funeral and then ordered upholsterers to drape the White House in the same black cambric as had been used for him.

"Her place in history," Beschloss said, "will probably pivot around those critical four days."

Fine. And if that does not begin to compare to the accomplishments of an Eleanor Roosevelt or even a Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie never claimed it did.

It is we, mythologizing her in death, who make such claims. And those parts of her life that do not fit the myth we either slide over or excise completely.

When, in 1968, Jackie told Robert Kennedy that she was going to marry Aristotle Onassis, Bobby replied: "For God's sake, Jackie, that could cost me five states."

So, at his request, she agreed to wait. But soon Bobby was dead and there was no reason for waiting. ("I despise America," Jackie told her friends, "and I don't want my children to live here anymore.")

So Jackie married Onassis, which at her funeral service on Monday,was conveniently forgotten. His name was never mentioned; he had become an un-person. He did not fit the image.

Nor, really, does Maurice Tempelsman, the man Jackie lived with for the last 12 years of her life. Short, portly and married, Tempelsman does not exactly fit the public image of who Jackie should be linked to.

So, though he was prominent at the funeral -- the Kennedys seem genuinely to like him -- the media spent very little time examining this part of Jackie's life.

But it bears examining if truth is the purpose of history: The three very different men in Jackie's life -- Jack, Ari and Maurice -- seem to have one thing in common: Money.

But nobody wanted to dwell upon this. A Jackie who spent her life attaching herself to wealthy men is not the Jackie we want to remember.

We would much prefer the pictures: Jackie as a young girl in that riding habit, Jackie on the beach, Jackie with the kids, Jackie crawling out on the trunk of the limousine in Dallas.

No, scratch that last one. I could not find that picture in any newsmagazine. That picture may show Jackie in the act of being human, which is not what we want at all.

Was Jackie reacting as most of us would have reacted, fleeing in naked terror from the horror of her husband's murder? Or was she, as some said, climbing away in order to reach out for a Secret Service agent to save her husband's life?

The nation demanded that it be the latter. And so it became. And the legend has never stopped growing.

"Jackie would have preferred to be just herself," Ted Kennedy said in his simple and touching eulogy to her, "but the world insisted that she be a legend, too."

I don't know why we insisted upon it. Teddy had it just right. "Most of all," he said, "she was a magnificent wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend."

But that was not enough for us.

And that tells us more about ourselves than about Jackie.

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