She Saved America from Itself Let Her Rest with Heroes

May 26, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was just 31 years old when the man she married, John F. Kennedy, was elected president of the United States. She was a lot more like Princess Di than Eleanor Roosevelt -- young and beautiful, confused, resentful, willful, selfish.

Yet, three years later when President Kennedy was shot down, she was the one who saved America from itself. She proved to be an extraordinary woman in most every way.

Mrs. Kennedy, most of the time, was not a happy woman in the White House. The glory and glare of life there exacerbated the many problems of the Kennedy marriage. She was married to an impatient rich boy of surpassing charm whose vocation was mass seduction and whose avocation was serial seduction. Jack Kennedy, boy and man, was ''beautiful'' and ''careless'' -- in the way F. Scott Fitzgerald used those two words to describe Daisy Buchanan in ''The Great Gatsby.''

But the young Jackie -- the lovely ''woman-child,'' as French newspapers called her in 1961 -- was not so easy to live with, either. In the White House, the two of them often communicated through a third person, particularly when the president wanted her to do the kinds of things we now associate with the title ''first lady.''

Once Kennedy dispatched his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to ask Mrs. Kennedy to pinch-hit for him with a group of students visiting the White House. She refused, as she often did.

''I'll take care of it,'' said the president. It was almost a half-hour later that he came back downstairs to the Oval Office. ''She'll do it,'' he said, ''but you won't believe what it's going to cost me.''

''A new dress?'' asked Salinger, who had been through this before.

''Worse,'' Kennedy said. ''Two symphonies.''

Jacqueline Bouvier was infinitely more cultured than her meat-and-potatoes, Broadway-musical husband. She once told a friend that whatever he told the press, Jack Kennedy's favorite writer was ''Cholly Knickerbocker,'' the pen name of a New York gossip columnist.

Her more refined taste developed when she was growing up in a family of the shabbiest gentility. She had everything as a girl -- except money. Getting it was a fundamental goal of her life.

One of the fights the Kennedys had in front of friends was when she discovered that he was donating his $100,000-a-year salary as president to charity. She said she had better use for it -- and then he brought in an accountant to find out how much she was actually spending.

Another argument began when President Kennedy sent his chief of protocol, Angier Biddle Duke, to tell Mrs. Kennedy that she was embarrassing him politically by accepting expensive gifts from foreign leaders -- particularly a pair of thoroughbreds from the president of Ireland and two stallions from the king of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi generosity was particularly troublesome because it came just before the prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, was coming to Washington for an official reception.

Kennedy told Duke to tell his wife that Ben-Gurion would give him a Bible worth about $12. Mrs. Kennedy responded by saying she understood that, but there was a problem.

''What?''

''I want the horses.'' And she took them.

Together in public, though, they dazzled the country. Americans were newly rich and their power seemed unlimited in the years after victory in World War II. The veterans and their ladies needed role models, and there were the young Kennedys with two beautiful children in the White House. Just watching Jack and Jackie -- what they wore, who they saw, where they went -- was that most American of preoccupations, self-improvement.

Then Jackie Kennedy dazzled the world, speaking French to President Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Spanish to enthusiastic crowds in Mexico City, impressing all tongue-tied Americans, including her monolingual husband. Soon enough, the president began to look at his wife differently when he realized that however much she disliked politics and politicians, crowds and crowds of people loved her.

After three years of her getting used to life in a glass White House, President Kennedy was thrilled when Jackie agreed to accompany him to Texas for some politicking in November 1963. She was with him when he was murdered on November 22. Perhaps more important (at least to the rest of us) she was with the vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, when he was sworn in as the new president that tragic day.

In retrospect, it seems a blessing that Jacqueline Kennedy was standing with Johnson in the photograph of him taking the oath of office on Air Force One. She gave the moment the emotional legitimacy the nation desperately needed; succession is the most dangerous time in any political system. It was Jacqueline Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson, who took over the country for those numbing three days. She guided the people of the United States through the worst of it. We, the people, were the family at that funeral.

Now, 30 years later, we know about how much harm and mischief would continue to come from events real and imagined in the pain and chaos of the Kennedy assassination. There is a great deal of poison in our system, injected by fools and charlatans peddling conspiracy theories.

All of that would be infinitely worse, conceivably even terminal for democracy, had it not been for the sense and presence and grace of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. It seems fitting to me that she will rest forever with heroes.

Richard Reeves is the author of ''President Kennedy: Profile of Power.''

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