Emma Varley weighs up the public reaction to the late First Lady’s opinions on her often transgressive husband

 

The recently published interviews of Jackie Kennedy reveal an interesting angle on the late First Lady. Known as the well-educated, well-behaved and well-dressed wife of the Camelot era, Jackie Kennedy’s image has remained largely enigmatic and untarnished since the assassination of her husband. She insisted that these interviews, recorded with historian and Whitehouse aid Arthur Schlesinger, were to be unpublished until many years after her death. Why, we may ask? There was speculation that the interviews were a scandalous and vengeful account of her husband’s wanderings, a catalogue of an imperfect marriage, or indeed, presidency. Despite this speculation, a very different message emerges.

Julie Birchill, writing in the Independent, slates the late Mrs Kennedy for her hypocrisy, her weakness, and her old-fashioned approach to marriage. There are, arguably, a few comments in the interviews which could definitely be taken up with horror by the Germaine Greers of our time. The phrases ‘women should never be in politics. We’re just not suited to it…”, or “a man would be the leader and a woman would be his wife” are not exactly the words we might hope to hear from Michelle Obama. Jackie Kennedy did, however, appear aware that her relationship with her husband was not exactly progressive: she describes her marriage as “rather terribly Victorian”. These slightly disheartening comments on her role in the White House should be seen as reflective of her time, her upbringing, and as a misplaced tribute to the husband who died in her arms four months before the interviews.

The other criticism that has been slung at Jackie Kennedy during the recent debate about her interviews is her omission of any of the details of JFK’s infidelities. She clearly had no problems with speaking honestly about other people – some of her comments on Winston Churchill, for example, are far from flattering. She borders on bitchy. She dismissed Martin Luther King as a womaniser; but pointedly failed to acknowledge a strikingly similar trait in her husband. She accused Charles de Gualle of being an ‘egomaniac’; but found no fault with the man who habitually strayed from the marital bed, and whose affair with Marilyn Monroe stands out as one of his most famous indiscretions.

But why is it that we assume that when faced with a tape recorder or a television camera, full confessions should be compulsory and all souls should be bared? Is it really preferable to have the Cheryl Cole approach to sharing problems? Or should we admire Jackie Kennedy’s reticence and loyalty, and the fact that she is not prepared to make the headlines from digging up old skeletons? Princess Diana’s wide-eyed insights into her husband’s affair stand in stark contrast. There is something much more dignified in Jackie’s silence. And something much more true to the sparkling image of the Kennedy administration that she worked so hard to maintain. So while the interviews might have disappointed us as a juicy story of presidential domestic drama, we shouldn’t dismiss Jackie Kennedy as submissive, but appreciate her as a loyal upholder of the Kennedy legacy.

 

Emma Varley 

Image Credit – cliff1066