The Kennedy 'Grace and Power' -- in the court of Camelot

On Books

May 09, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

Setting aside George Washington, no U.S. president has been mythologized so fabulously as John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In the 1960s, a pious certitude dictated that all Americans would forever remember what they were doing at the moment they first learned of his assassination. Today, almost 60 percent of all United States citizens were not yet born on Nov. 22, 1963. How many can recall that date?

Though critics and detesters of John Kennedy have endured, as they did in the halcyon days subsequently sentimentalized by his widow as Camelot, in the main they are silent or soft-spoken. The energy of the myth powerfully deters even relatively gentle skepticism.

Memory is mortal. But somehow, the enthusiasm -- or curiosity, or projection or whatever it may be -- goes on. More than 600 books about the Kennedys have been published, and hundreds more -- from and about associates, intimates and kin -- have gained interest because of the connection. There are two or three dozen other Kennedy-related books just recently on the market or now in the process of publication.

From among them now rises Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House by Sally Bedell Smith (Random House, 608 pages, $29.95), being published days short of May 19, the 10th anniversary of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' death. It arrives a few months over 40 years since JFK died, and not many weeks short of five years since the demise of their son, known in Camelot as John-John.

Ms. Smith writes frequently for Vanity Fair and worked at Time and The New York Times. She has written successful biographies of Diana, Princess of Wales; Pamela Churchill Harriman; and William S. Paley. She lives in Washington with her husband, Stephen.

Grace and Power already has been much in the news -- and more yet in the gossip columns, which is extraordinary since the gossip is now, obviously, 40 years and more old. The book was held in tight embargo by Random House -- but a generous excerpt was published in the May edition of Vanity Fair, which carried this tout line: "How History's Most Fabulous First Lady Dealt With Sex, Smoking, Her Weight, And All Those Other Women."

John Kennedy was 12 years older than Jacqueline. He was eight years older than his brother Robert and 15 older than the youngest, Edward. Smith begins by listing 42 people who were in "The Kennedy Court" as of January 1961. They range from immediate and in-lawed family and friends of both Jack and Jackie from childhood and school, to Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and other major players in the administration and its surroundings.

The presidency was 1,007 days. Smith chronicles it with a confident, confiding detachment. She does this with flair but without flourish, with grace, dignity -- with sophistication that's never high-falutin. There is convincing independence of observation and thought throughout -- neither belying nor betraying Smith's unapologetic appreciations and enthusiasms. "From the remove of four decades," she writes, "the Kennedy White House emerges not as a model of enlightened government nor as a series of dark conspiracies, but rather as a deeply human place."

The Kennedys and their "court," Smith writes, left behind them "a more assertive nation infused with a vision and an aesthetic that found its inspiration in Jeffersonian ideals. ... They were special people who intersected at a special time, a time when nothing seemed impossible."

She is a fine reporter, and in this case has done, I believe, everything a reporter -- or an editor -- could ask. Her material is carefully attributed. There are 99 punctilious pages of source notes. She interviewed hundreds of people and read reams upon reams of other sources -- the bibliography runs for seven pages of tiny type, and there are four more pages of "acknowledgements" -- mostly names of those interviewed.

Though it has been recorded before, Smith's recitation of the variety, breadth and intensity of Kennedy's illnesses is breathtaking. While in the White House, as before, the nation's archetype of youth and vigor got regular doses of 15 or more drugs. He was constantly calibrated for his Addison's disease. Intense back pain drove him often to use crutches or walking sticks simply to move from room to room.

Jack Kennedy, Smith writes, "had an extraordinary close relationship with the press and co-opted most of the reporters who covered him." In contrast, Jacqueline distrusted and avoided the press in almost every possible instance, despite the fact that she had worked for newspapers and magazines in her youth.

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