A legend on a legend

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez () - October 11, 2011 - 12:00am

As people are rightfully paying homage to the wizard that was Steve Jobs, let me take a detour back in time to pay tribute yet again to another legend. John F. Kennedy changed the face of politics and made it a pulpit of hope and inspiration  so that many young men and women inspired by his life and moved by his death went into public service, believing they could change the world. And they did  Bill Clinton, the Peace Corps, the men who conquered the moon. Even our own President Noynoy Aquino is reportedly a JFK fan.

The JFK Library and Museum in Boston, in fact, is dedicated not only to his memory but also “to all those who through the art of politics seek a new and better world.”

Just as the series The Kennedys was winding down its first run on the History Channel, my brother-in-law Ping Sotto and my sister Val gifted me with a hardcover edition of the fresh-off the press Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, a transcript of the seven interviews (running over eight hours) the former first lady gave historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. three months after JFK’s death. I wanted to speed read the book so I could review it pronto. But it was like a bowl of banana split topped with chocolate syrup  each page was to be savored and enjoyed.

Jacqueline only gave three interviews after JFK died: to Theodore White, to Schlesinger and to William Manchester. White’s interview was published in Life. Manchester’s interview was deleted from his book Death of a President because Jacqueline felt it was too personal and she obtained an injunction that the interviews be published only decades after her death. Same with Schlesinger’s interview, which was part of an oral history she did for the JFK Library and in whose vaults the taped were kept. Her will says they were to be made public only 50 years after her death, which was in 2004. Other than that, she never gave interviews and never publicly spoke about her husband, not even during programs marking his death anniversaries.

And now you are actually hearing her voice and she is speaking up (The book comes with a CD of the tapes). Here she is talking about the most interesting part of her life, her life with JFK, without reservation. She believed he belonged to history and was conscious that since he was gone, there would be no one to defend his record  the way past presidents can and do. In a way, she was building JFK a shrine, and her recollections of his presidency were to be laid on his altar.

By releasing the tapes of the interviews to the public this year, the 50th year of JFK’s presidency, and not in 2044, Caroline Kennedy, is unleashing a torrent of information not just to historians, but also to Kennedy fans and fanatics. The tapes, eight and a half hours of them, are the closest we, who personally did not know the Kennedys, can get to their heart and soul. It’s like having a chat with Jackie as she talks about the highs and lows of the Kennedy presidency and gives us a glimpse into Camelot’s private quarters. The book also inevitably shows which parts of The Kennedys miniseries are not quite historically accurate.

If I admired Kennedy before, I’m totally hooked on him now (This my husband Ed knows quite plainly and tolerates quite patiently. On one of my birthdays, he gave me a collage of Time magazine covers that had JFK on them.). If you just turn a blind eye to JFK’s womanizing (Jackie, still grieving the loss of someone that was both her husband and her hero, didn’t talk about it at all in the tapes), you will encounter in the book a JFK that was brilliant, dedicated to his job, decisive, forgiving, compassionate with the less fortunate, doting to his children… gosh, how much more space do I have?

* * *

Who was it that said that womanizers are good, loving, gentlemanly creatures? The description seems apt for JFK, described many times by Jackie in the tapes as “so sweet.”

“And he never asked me to change,” she told Schlesinger. “Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport, who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics.”

So she told him, “Oh, Jack, I’m sorry for you that I’m such a dud.”

“And he knew it wasn’t true and he didn’t want me to change, I mean, he knew I loved him and I did everything I could…” she continued.

She said that whether to a political foe or to her, he always made reconciliation easy, he would always leave the door open to a mending of ties. In her case, she recalled, she would just run to him and say “I’m sorry” and he would laugh their misunderstanding off and that was it. He hardly ever lost his temper, she said. The perfect diplomat, the ideal husband, especially when the wife was moody.

He was also a loyal brother. He enjoyed power but was not willing to discard his values and family ties for it. Jackie recalled to Schlesinger that she and her husband would discuss life after the presidency. Presuming he won his second term, he would only be 51 when he stepped down, definitely not an age for him to retire. Like John Quincy Adams, a former president who became a legislator after his term was over, going back to the Senate was an option for JFK. So Jackie and Bobby (Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy) talked about that option. But JFK’s old Senate seat was already held by his youngest brother Edward (“Teddy”). Bobby thus talked to Teddy about it and Teddy, who ended up the fourth longest serving senator in US history, readily said that if JFK wanted his old seat back after his presidency in 1968, he would willingly give it. He would not run.

When Jackie told her husband this, instead of being relieved, JFK was a bit upset and told her he could never do that to his youngest brother. He asked Jackie to tell Teddy that he would not derail the latter’s political career just to hold on to power. JFK did not live long enough to face that dilemma  what to do when he was out of power  but he had already shown to those he loved what he would never do when he was out of it.

JFK also was sensitive to the feelings of those who were not in power, or had just lost it. Once, he was shown the guest list to a dinner being held by the French embassy in his honor. He asked why the former US Ambassador to Paris was not invited. After all, the ex ambassador had just stepped down and did much to help relations between the two countries. On the way home, Jackie recalled JFK was so affected because he believed it wasn’t fair to the former ambassador to be excluded from the party and he felt for the guy who was suddenly out of power and seemingly unappreciated. And to think JFK was at the height of his power and popularity at the time, and he already could empathize with those who had lost their clout.

But Jackie somehow knew that her fairy tale wouldn’t last. She told Schlesinger that while in the White House, she “always taught (her children) that the White House was sort of temporary. I’m so glad I did, for the way it ended…”

Little did she know that JFK’s influence would outlive him, and that to this day, he still has the power to change the world.

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com)

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