O Jackie! For once in her life, though long after her death, Jackie Kennedy has let us see the flesh-and-blood woman behind the black veil, and it’s plain unfair of me—hypocritical and unsisterly, really—to squirm at the sight.

In an oral history released forty-seven years after she spoke with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in 1964, she described Charles de Gaulle as “that egomaniac,” called Martin Luther King Jr. “a phony,” and Indira Gandhi “a real prune.” With an efficiency that would make Barbara Bush blush, she settled scores with everyone from her social secretary to American presidents past and then present: “Oh, God,’’ she remembers her husband saying, “can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?” Even FDR gets the back of her hand. “Charlatan is an unfair word,” she says, again quoting JFK, but “he did an awful lot for effect.”

If ever there was an unreliable narrator, it was the woman whose Camelot revisionism has survived only because we want it to. My friend who used to say she was “giving it the full Jackie Kennedy” when advocating for her own son meant that for strategic reasons, she’d chosen to betray no hint of any feelings more complicated that gratitude and awe.

Yet am I glad that Jack Kennedy’s widow did not, as it turns out, suffer in complete silence? Yes and no: Nobody can be Jackie Kennedy all the time, and given his dalliances, she had reason to be angry. Yet I bristle to hear her so condescendingly describe him crossing himself and praying at night: “It was just like a little childish mannerism, I suppose like brushing your teeth or something. But I thought that was so sweet. It used to amuse me so, standing there.”

Maybe my initial negative reaction comes from the fact that this is such an un-Jackie age, with too much sharing and too little mystery, that I am particularly sorry to hear that of course she dished, too, just like everybody, and was not always so high-minded, either, as when she suggested that perhaps “violently liberal women in politics” preferred her husband’s former rival, Adlai Stevenson, because they “were scared of sex.” Of Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the president of South Vietnam, and Clare Boothe Luce, she whispered, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.” 

(I do, however, love this line anticipating Hillary’s infamous comment about how she coulda stayed home baking cookies—not: “Suddenly, everything that’d been a liability before—your hair, that you spoke French, that you didn’t just adore to campaign, and you didn’t bake bread with flour up to your arms,” came to be seen as an asset, which she claimed made her “so happy for Jack.”)

Although I tend to wish both men and women in public life were less combative and had better manners, there is still a lot of sky between Jackie’s exhalation and oh, say, the recent outburst of Carol Bartz, who after she lost her job as CEO of Yahoo told Fortune, “These people f—ed me over.” When Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock told her over the phone that she was out, he seemed to have been reading a prepared statement: “I said, ‘Roy, I think that’s a script. Why don’t you have the balls to tell me yourself?’” And this is rich: “I thought you were classier,” she said she told him.

More and more, I mind cursing in print and honking in traffic. Even at this year’s Unity Walk to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, those gathered in the Washington Hebrew Congregation had to struggle to hear over the shouting of the Code Pink antiwar protesters yelling, “war criminal!’’ at the videotaped welcome from Tony Blair.

I’ve gotten so tired of all the yelling and oversharing that instead of being desensitized, I’ve maxed out, wincing at all caps in online postings and now begrudging even this woman who whispered all her life one moment of posthumous inappropriateness. It’s actually pretty remarkable that Caroline Kennedy, who I thought was treated badly when she briefly considered running for the Senate, would allow this unedited view of her mother. But of course, in the end it is more respectful to show Jackie as she was—spinning furiously, both eyes on history, and imperfect like everybody else.

Caroline has rightly said that even now the public doesn’t really know her mother “at all.” Maybe she stayed mostly silent because when she did speak she felt compelled, for whatever reason, to portray her life with JFK in a way that makes us wonder how much of what she said in tell-all mode was true.

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.
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Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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