The American press and networks send us millions of words a year about the world’s most powerful man and the extraordinary modern dynasty he springs from. By now we know as much as we need to about the Kennedys’ glamorous legend — and less than we’d like to about the real men and women who made it. Here a seasoned Canadian reporter begins his own appraisal of the American family that makes many of the decisions we live by.
JOHN F. KENNEDY is the youngest and most vigorous president since the rough-riding, big-game hunting Teddy Roosevelt. He possesses a personal magic that turns even his mistakes to his political advantage and, barring an act of God, he’s bound to be in the White House for the next six years. He is, without doubt, the most powerful man in the world, since Nikita Khrushchov is aging and, from all accounts, his prestige is declining.
Kennedy (like Khrushchov) is followed wherever he goes by a soldier in civvies carrying a locked case. Kennedy's contains the coded message that, if flashed to U.S. nuclear bases, would unleash thermonuclear weapons and perhaps obliterate humanity. Because of this he is, in a sense, more important to Canadians than our own prime minister. To what extent then, can we depend upon the fibre of his character and upon his judgment?
The views you hear at Washington, on this life or death question, differ widely. I've been watching Kennedy from a ringside seat in Washington for two years and, like most reporters here, I'm not sure I'm any closer than I ever was to knowing what kind of man he really is. Kennedy's judgment, when he put his presidential seal of approval on the attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961, was incredibly bad. And his recent showdown with Khrushchov over the Soviet missiles in Cuba could easily have led to war. Cuba, with Americans, is an emotional issue — the most emotional issue there is in the U.S. at the moment. Because of this, the vast majority of them probably favored Kennedy's gamble.
But there were notable exceptions, like Judge Henry W. Edgerton of the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, who said in a letter to the New York Times: “Many people think events have justified President Kennedy's toughness in the Cuban crisis. This is a little like thinking that if a man plays Russian roulette and escapes death, the event proves his act was reasonable. The great differences between the two cases are obvious. On the one hand, the president sought to promote the public good. On the other hand he risked many millions of lives besides his own.”
There are Washington observers, old friends of John Kennedy, who feel that he has so much personal experience with the tragedy of war that he would seek, at all costs, to avoid one. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed on a bomber mission over the Belgian coast, his brother-in-law the Marquis of Hartington was killed in an infantry action in Normandy, and he himself was critically wounded when a Japanese destroyer rammed the motor torpedo boat he commanded in the Pacific. Yet this theory is hard to reconcile with his statement to an aide who told Kennedy he was building a swimming pool instead of a fallout shelter: “You're making a mistake.” Kennedy said. There's another revealing Kennedy statement on record.
When a militant right-winger told him he should stop riding Caroline's tricycle and he “a man on horseback," he retorted, "Wars are easier to talk about than they are to fight. I'm just as tough as you are and I didn't get elected president by arriving at soft judgments."
It is part of the enigma of Kennedy that he may be tougher than the late John Foster Dulles — and has probably come closer to pushing the button — but unlike the menacing Dulles, the image the public sees of Kennedy on their television screens is that of a smiling young man who radiates warmth, charm, amiability. It’s an image that immediately strikes practically everybody as that of a man it would be nice to have for a friend, and that, in a national survey, prompted coeds to pick Kennedy as the American with the most sex appeal.
Kennedy’s handsome good natured face is virtually impossible to associate with a thermonuclear attack. This, in itself, could be dangerous, were it to spread a notion that Kennedy is soft, and it’s a prime example of the fact that the leader and the legend are not the same, and that the image may mask the truth. The image, for one thing, conceals a granitic quality and an Irish temper. Ever since Kennedy’s Vienna summit meeting with Khrushchov, rumors have circulated in Washington that he spoke so bluntly to the Soviet premier that he set back hopes for easing international tensions. The meeting, of course, was behind closed doors, so only the participants could say whether the rumors are correct — and the participants won't.
But his fight early in 1962 with the steel tycoons was very much out in public. When they announced a price increase, he felt he had been double-crossed because he had persuaded their workers not to strike for an inflationary wage boost. In retaliation he and his brother, Attorney-General Robert Francis Kennedy, hit the steelmakers from all angles, forcing them to rescind the increase. John Kennedy was in such a cold rage that he was quoted as saying: "My father always told me that all businessmen were sons-of-bitches but I never believed him till now.”
U.S. newspapers have, as a rule, treated John and Jacqueline Kennedy with uncritical generosity, as have magazines, television, moving pictures and radio. I suspect that Americans have been yearning for years for a touch of glamour in the White House. Now that they have a couple there who look like Hollywood stars — a couple, to boot, with appealing young children and immense wealth — they’re delighted by it all, especially since TV brings their favorite family into their own living rooms. There are times when the Kennedys seem more like the performers in a screen romance than like the president of a mighty nation and his wife and kids.
So many millions of words have been written and spoken about Kennedy’s style — his speaking style, his reading style, his sartorial style and his family-man style — and about his wife’s style and his children’s style and his brothers’ style — that Americans may actually know less rather than more about the Kennedy qualities and contradictions that really matter. Although he has had more experience in congress than most other presidents — he was a member of the House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953 and of the Senate from 1953 to 1960 — Congress in 1962 passed only 44.3 percent of his legislative requests, compared with 64.7 percent of the Eisenhower requests it passed in Eisenhower’s second year in office.
While he did get through his vital measures for trade expansion, stricter regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, public works acceleration and area redevelopment, his medicare, education and farm bills, as well as the bill to set up a department of urban affairs, went nowhere. There was gossip that Kennedy and his Boston-Irish liaison men on Capitol Hill had antagonized congressmen by being too aggressive. But his legislative program will do better in 1963 because the results of the mid-term election in November proved that the majority of Americans are behind his policies.
Paradoxically, while Kennedy had been elected by one of the thinnest margins in history in 1960 — less than one fifth of one percent of the total vote — his Gallup Poll popularity rating rose even while congress was shooting down his campaign promises. This rating, higher than that of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower, climbed even after the Bay of Pigs. He told an adviser at the time, dryly, “It seems as though the more mistakes I make the more popular I become.”
John Kennedy, in two years in the White House, has acquired the dimensions of a legend. He’s the very stuff of which legends are made. As everybody knows, he’s the first Roman Catholic president, the richest president, the most humorous president since the droll Lincoln, the first president to be a naval hero. He donates his $100,000 salary to charity. And he is the first president to carry nepotism to such lengths that he has a brother in his cabinet, a brother in the Senate and a brother-in-law who directs the Peace Corps — a situation that led TV comic Red Skelton to observe that the hoary political slogan, “A chicken in every pot,” has been changed to “A Kennedy in every job,” There's a story that after America's first orbital space flight, Kennedy himself joked that the astronaut, John Glenn, had done well for “somebody not a member of the family.”
While Kennedy the politician and his administration have been attacked, at times bitterly, the gleaming Kennedy image now firmly fixed in the public mind has remained unscathed. There are individuals who are alarmed by this. One of them, Sister Mary Paul Paye, an intellectual nun, risked censure from dignitaries of her church to jab the first Roman Catholic president with a sharp pen in an article titled The Kennedy Cult, published in the liberal weekly, The Nation.
She wrote: "The gentleman smiles, the youngster sidles up to a pony on the lawn, the lovely lady bows. Cameras click, tape-machines whirl, and the American public is exposed again to that dangerous phenomenon: the personality cult of the president. I protest — vehemently, vigorously, apolitically and almost alone.”
As she sees it, the continual projection of the president's image by television, newspaper, magazine, radio, motion picture and book tends to obscure significant news and to lead to a disproportionate increase in the president's personal power — an increase that encourages one-man rule. She thinks, too, that it results in the president being irrationally identified with the whole nation. “Mr. Kennedy,” she declared in her article, “is not the United States. If he should fail, as well he may, the country will not disintegrate. But if the personality cult continues . . . it will be very difficult to convince the people of that fact.”
Yet, as she wrote, she protests “almost alone.” Americans follow the activities of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and their children, Caroline, five, and John Jr., two, as eagerly as Britons follow the activities of Elizabeth II, Philip, and the royal offspring. Maybe more eagerly, for when Jacqueline got a run in a stocking when she was in South America, the utterly trivial incident was on the front pages of newspapers in most of the fifty states.
Royalty has traditionally had a strong influence on British tastes, but the Kennedys are the first White House family to influence American tastes comparably. They’ve done this in areas as diverse as sports, reading, furniture, food and — especially — dress. Mrs. Kennedy in the U.S., like the Queen in England, is her country's fashion leader.
She's also its favorite magazine cover girl and top-rated television attraction, and, unlike most of her predecessors, she is first lady in social fact, not just courtesy title. So crowded is her schedule that, while it's an annual ritual for the wife of the president to be photographed buying Christmas seals from the National Tuberculosis Association, she was too busy this fall and John Kennedy himself substituted for her.
The most prominent socialites of the land, people with names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, vied for hundred-dollar tickets for the opening of a Washington tryout of the new musical, Mr. President, in late September. This was a benefit performance for the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Institute of Washington and the Kennedy Child Study Centre of New York, both for studies of retarded children. It raised seventy thousand dollars.
When Mrs. Kennedy arrived at the theatre — the president had been delayed at the White House and missed the first act — she was given movie star fan-club treatment by a screaming, shoving crowd that had to be held back by police lines. “It was an evening,” the Washington Post said the next day, “to remove any remaining doubts that the magnetism of the Kennedys has become the hub of the social universe . . . The nation's fashion reporters were almost on the verge of tears to be trampled by so many Balenciagas, St. Laurents and Givenchys in an arrival scene too jam packed to allow anyone to describe anything below the neckline.”
Meanwhile. Hollywood hastened to complete a big budget movie in which Cliff Robertson plays the role of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the young navy lieutenant who commanded a PT boat rammed by a Japanese destroyer, and whose heroism in tugging a wounded man behind him, with a strap that he clamped between his teeth as he swam in shark-infested Blackett Strait, is to this day the subject of a folk song sung by natives in the Solomon Islands. The movie is based on the Robert J. Donovan book. PT 109, which is subtitled John F. Kennedy in World War II.
As the new television season got under way, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Garry Moore and Jackie Gleason, aware of the box-office pull of the Kennedys, larded their patter with Kennedy gags. Across the Atlantic a comedy troupe, intent on testing Kennedy skits on the English, was prevented from doing so by the Lord Chamberlain, who forbids the portrayal of heads of state. In a hundred and six countries, scattered around the globe, the U.S. Information Agency was distributing two colored documentary films, one on Mrs. Kennedy's travels in India, the other on her travels in Pakistan. It expected that a total of six hundred million people would see them. Suddenly, the Kennedys had become the hottest thing in show biz as well as in politics.
They're the hottest thing in the publishing business, too. As Theodore White's The Making of the President, I960 dropped from the best-seller list, where it had been for months, an amusing novelty, The JFK Coloring Book, whose creators purported it to be by Caroline Kennedy, hit the list briefly. By October at least ten different books dealing with the Kennedys were selling briskly, most in hard covers, some as paperback specials. Kennedy’s own speeches in his first year as president could be had in a fat pocket book. To Turn the Tide, and quotations from Kennedy were available in a thin pocket book, The Quotable Mr. Kennedy. If the Kennedys crowded the book stalls, they crowded U.S. magazine racks, too, both in the most sophisticated magazines and in publications like True Story, which told How Jackie Kennedy Keeps Love Alive. There was even a magazine published with no other title than The Kennedys.
In spite of the spate, the ravenous appetite of Americans for reading matter by and about the Kennedys shows no indication of approaching saturation point. This appetite is one of the more obvious manifestations of the feeling the dynasty has stirred in the national breast. Another is the apparent agreement by most Americans that the more Kennedys and Kennedy in-laws there are at Washington, the better.
This last fall, when youngest brother Edward Moore Kennedy ran in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate seat John Kennedy once held, the outcry of nepotism was heard again through the land. The New York Times, which tends to be friendly to the president, warned darkly that Teddy in the Senate could be more of an embarrassment than an asset. John Kennedy ignored this. And the majority of Massachusetts voters cast their ballots for Teddy, unimpressed by the oft reiterated assertions of his opponents that had his name been Teddy Moore, not Teddy Kennedy, his senatorial aspirations would have been drowned in ridicule because of his lack of “proven qualifications."
Bobby Kennedy, when the president appointed him attorney-general, had, as some lawyers acidly pointed out, never tried a case in court. John Kennedy, acknowledging their comments, said amiably in a speech at Washington's Alfalfa Club: “I can't see that it’s wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practise law'.”
Today Bobby, besides being attorney-general, is John’s most trusted adviser, second in power to the president himself. And there are veteran politicians who predict, half in fun, half in earnest, that when John has served the two four-year terms to which the constitution now limits a president, Bobby will be president for two terms, followed for two terms by Teddy. This would keep one of the three living sons of gruff old Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the shrewdest operator on Wall Street in the 1920s and the U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1937 to the end of 1940, in the White House until 1984. It is not likely to happen — but it could.
John, who is forty-five, Bobby, who is thirty-seven, and Teddy, who is thirty, resemble one another. They all have thick unruly hair, blue eyes, craggy jaws and the strong white teeth that are the hallmark of the familiar Kennedy smile.
Consciously or not, they accentuate the resemblance by having their hair cut the same way; by dressing alike in dark two-button suits, white shirts with spread collars and narrow Ivy neckties of subdued hue; by walking alike — an aggressively athletic stride; and by talking alike. As Harvard men will, they subtract Rs from words that have them and add Rs to words that don’t. In his inaugural address, John Kennedy mentioned the Democratic "potty,” said to the Russians, “Togethuh let us explaw the stahs,” and termed the UN “oawh Iahst best hope.”
Throughout the U.S. Joe Kennedy's boys are accorded that sincerest flattery — imitation. Their smile, stride and gestures are aped; their haircuts, suits, shirts and ties are copied on a mass scale. Hatters and overcoat manufacturers fret because the brothers Kennedy, particularly and most importantly the president, as a rule go hatless and coatless. The concern of the hatters and coat makers is understandable, for whatever the Kennedys do has an impact on the public.
They like touch football, so tens of thousands of Americans who didn't play it before take up the game. They like sailing, so sailboat sales zoom. The Kennedys and their kids ride horses and ponies, so the horse and pony market is strong and customers line up at riding schools. The Kennedys summer on Cape Cod, so Cape Cod is swamped with summer tourists. John Kennedy relaxes in a rocking chair, so the rocking chair industry rockets. The sagging dairy industry receives a fillip when the president volunteers to do his share for it by always having milk on the White House table.
When the word spreads that the president will drink no cocktail but a daiquiri, liquor stores have a rush on rum. Reports of Kennedy's ability to read at high speed (twelve hundred words a minute) swell the enrollment in speed reading courses.
Because millions hurry to emulate the president, his every act assumes significance. Unintentionally, he can hurt one segment of trade and heap unexpected prosperity on another.
So can Jacqueline Kennedy. She gets a bouffant hairdo, so girls from Maine to California get bouffant hairdos, too. Women are so eager to read about her clothes that White House reporters have discovered it's handy to have a smattering of fashion jargon and be able to distinguish a panel from a pleat.
Jacqueline buys most of her clothes from Oleg Cassini, socialite, wit and one of her old friends, who won a reputation as a couturier by creating sexy gowns for Hollywood stars. She has been accused of dressing too well. During the 1960 election campaign, the Republicans seized on an item in Women's Wear Daily, a trade paper, that said she spent thirty thousand dollars a year with Paris couturiers. When Nan Robertson of the New York Times asked Jackie if the item in Women's Wear Daily was accurate, she made a classic retort: “I couldn't spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.”
But in her book, First Lady, Charlotte Curtis insists that between December, I960, and March, 1962, Jacqueline spent more than fifty thousand dollars for clothes, including thirty nine hundred dollars for hats from one Fifth Avenue shop and from fifteen hundred to three thousand dollars for her inauguration gown. In the sixteen months, news cameramen photographed her in nearly four hundred ensembles.
Whatever she spends, or wherever she spends it, her sister citizens try to look as much like her as they can, and she, more than anyone else, determines the styles of the garments and accessories for which U.S. women lay out an annual five to six billion dollars. The admiration of the American female for Mrs. Kennedy's special brand of chic beauty knows no bounds and has produced odd side effects. For example:
■ New York has a new crop of professional models who are Jacqueline Kennedy look-alikes and are used so much by fashion photographers that if you riffle the pages of a fashion magazine you may get the impression that Mrs. Kennedy posed for most of the illustrations.
■ A Chicago rhinoplastic surgeon told a medical convention that most U.S. girls who are having their noses reshaped by surgery want them to be like Jacqueline's nose. They used to want them to be like Elizabeth Taylor’s or that of Princess Grace of Monaco.
■ A Danish mannequin manufacturer got orders from thirty-three countries for Jacqueline Kennedy mannequins. He was instructed to stop making them by the Danish Government, to which the U.S. State Department had protested on the grounds that it was unseemly to have likenesses of America's first lady in shop windows, displaying heaven knew what sort of female apparel, and perhaps being the undraped object of mirth when the apparel was being changed.
■ At Halloween many a little girl went on her “trick or treat" rounds proudly wearing a Jacqueline Kennedy false face.
■ In the Christmas shopping season expensive Jacqueline dolls, dressed in white brocade ballgowns and long satin evening coats, were a fast-selling item in leading U.S. stores. (There were also Caroline dolls.)
A lot of American women who try to achieve the Jackie Look don't stop there. They try, within their means, to do the things she does. This has been one of the causes of the unparalleled boom in antiques and art. The boom grew with missile-like speed when she undertook to redecorate the public rooms of the White House, and to replace a bunch of furniture that was mediocre, and a bunch of pictures that were not really art, with elegant antiques and paintings of historical value or artistic merit or both.
When the rooms had been redone she showed Americans through them herself, via television. The program, taped in advance, was used by both NBC and CBS networks on February 14. The researchers who count the unseen noses of TV audiences figure it was watched by forty-seven million — a quarter of the entire U.S. population and an all-time high for a program of a cultural nature. It was lavishly praised by the TV critics, prompted seventeen thousand letters of appreciation to Mrs. Kennedy, and was rebroadcast.
The right-wing, witch-hunting, ancestor-worshipping Daughters of the American Revolution have been snorting wrathfully since December, 1961, that Jacqueline Kennedy could make anybody buy anything. What riled the Daughters but impressed them with her salesmanship was her scuttling of their crusade to save Christianity from the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. The fund, as one means of raising money to assist needy children in underdeveloped countries, peddles Christmas cards. The Daughters, who harbor an assortment of weird notions, loudly advised Americans not to buy UNICEF cards because UNICEF was a “Communist plan to destroy all religious beliefs and customs.”
Mrs. Kennedy reacted by ordering ten boxes of UNICEF cards and announcing that she had done so. The press, as she anticipated, played up the announcement: UNICEF was swamped with orders; and the crusade of the Daughters collapsed.
Jacqueline’s own crusades have been more constructive. She prevented a demolition crew from obliterating a row of historic buildings near the White House by persuading the capital’s planners to amend their plans. She’s the mainspring of the National Cultural Centre project, which will cost about 30 million dollars.
And, besides refurbishing the White House, she has improved its food, although not without embarrassment. The embarrassment grew out of an indirect approach to the chef of the French Embassy in London, who, while unwilling to leave London, felt so flattered that he informed the newspapers he'd had an offer from the White House, thereby doing almost as much as U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to increase international tension.
In the end, Mrs. Kennedy hired French chef René Verdon away from a New York hotel, an event the press gave approximately the coverage it would give a switch in presidents at General Motors or American Telephone and Telegraph. Verdon, in his own way, is now an eminence on the Washington scene. Reporters describe in detail the all-French fare at state dinners, the Kennedy taste for French cooking is spreading far and wide, and the U.S. sale of French cookbooks — and French dictionaries — is up.
Like the furniture and the food. White House guests are more interesting these days. There are functions for poets, novelists, artists, musicians, scientists and astronauts, not just for visiting dignitaries from other countries. And that odd Washington institution, “the hostess with the mostes,” has slipped into limbo. Accounts of doings at the White House seem virtually to have squeezed the flamboyantly hospitable Perle Mesta and Gwen Cafritz off the social pages they once dominated.
When Peter Lawford, the English actor married to John Kennedy’s sister Patricia, shaved with Gillette blades for TV commercials during the World Series, a lot of Americans were shocked — a few of them so shocked they wrote letters to editors. A typical letter, written by an Alfred Toombs and published in the New York Times, said; “I realize that Mr. Lawford is a private citizen. But it would seem that the requirements of good taste should restrain any member of the president's immediate family from even appearing to take advantage of their unique position.”
Inexplicably, the public that expects adult Kennedys and Kennedy in-laws to behave with superhuman dignity seems to exempt Bobby from the unwritten restrictions and to enjoy it when he pushes a fully-clothed guest into his swimming pool, as he frequently has, or is photographed in shirtsleeves eating a sandwich at his desk, or is accompanied to his office by an overgrown dog, in defiance of the regulation that dogs are not permitted in government buildings. The Kennedy children, of course, have even more licence. The public expects all Kennedy children to be imps — and Caroline more of an imp than the others. It is rarely disappointed.
Tourists press against the wrought iron fence around the White House, hoping to catch a distant glimpse of her chasing her dozen white ducks around the lily pond, or riding Macaroni or Tex, the ponies Vice-President Lyndon Johnson gave her, or playing with her Welsh terrier, Charlie, or with Pushinka, the fluffy white pup Nikita Khrushchov sent her.
The tourist who caught the most unforgettable glimpse of her, though not through the fence, was Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria. He, in October, was the first chief of state to be welcomed to the White House with a salute of guns — a custom traditional in the British Commonwealth but not until lately adopted by the U.S. As the guns, at measured intervals, went “boom . . . boom . . . boom” several children, the angel faced Caroline in the middle of them, stuck their heads out an open window of the White House room that’s been turned into a kindergarten for Caroline and her friends. After each boom the children echoed “bang, bang!” John Kennedy and Ahmed Ben Bella looked at each other and tried not to laugh.
Like John Kennedy's Lincolncsque speeches and clean cut appearance, like Jacqueline’s beauty and beautiful clothes, Caroline’s bang-bangs are an integral part of the phenomenal Kennedy popularity. Mary Paul Pave said in her blast at the personality cult that the “president and his family are naturals for publicity.” She understated it. ★