Are some footnotes to footnotes of history...

WHAT FOLLOWS

May 26, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WHAT FOLLOWS are some footnotes to footnotes of history regarding Jacqueline Kennedy and Camelot.

As is fairly well known, she put the "Camelot" tag on the administration of her husband President John F. Kennedy.

What happened was, the journalist Theodore White was known to be preparing an article for Life magazine on John Kennedy shortly after his assassination. At her request he interviewed Jackie. He wrote in his article that Mrs. Kennedy told him that at her husband's request she played the album of the songs from the musical "Camelot" each night as they were drifting off to sleep.

"And the song he loved most came at the very end," Jackie said, " 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

There would be great presidents again, she told White, but, "There'll never be another Camelot again."

The Kennedys hated that. Neither of the court historians of the Kennedy presidency -- Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorenson -- even mentioned Jackie's epitaph for their presidency in their books about it.

Schlesinger did mention it later, in a biography of Robert F. Kennedy, but critically. He said of Jackie's remarks that they were "a romantic fancy I do not recall on Robert's lips, and that I'm sure would have provoked John Kennedy to profane disclaimer."

Schlesinger explained why by saying Robert Kennedy, and, presumably, his brother Jack, thought the proper historical analogy was not to the days of King Arthur but to those of Periclean Athens, whose leaders they admired as brave, rational and incorruptible.

Less favorable biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz had a different explanation for Bobby's "impatience" with the Camelot image. "He knew that Jackie had in mind the wistful grace of the Lerner and Loewe musical [Jack's Choate and Harvard chum, Alan Jay Lerner, wrote the words], but perhaps he also realized that the analogy might just as easily invite comparison to Thomas Malory's vision of an ideal which had been betrayed from within by lust and greed for power and finally culminated in death and desolation. The irony is that he [Robert] himself was the perfect Lancelot -- ascetic and intense, trying to keep his demons at bay, anxious to quest for the Grail but fearful he was not pure enough to attain it."

At any rate, I believe that Jackie fused in the American mind for all time to come a modestly successful (but perhaps about-to-fail) presidency with the most enduring legend of glamorous national leadership in the English-speaking world.

Thanks to her, a thousand years from now, when all the other presidents of 20th century America are as forgotten as all the kings and their castles of 6th century Britain except Arthur and Camelot, Jack Kennedy and his White House will be remembered and celebrated.

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