America’s First Lady

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy OnassisShe was a last link to a certain kind of past, and that is part, but only part, of why we mourn so. Jackie Kennedy symbolized—she was a connection to a time, to an old America that was more dignified, more private, an America in which standards were higher and clearer and elegance meant something, a time when elegance was a kind of statement, a way of dressing up the world, and so a generous act. She had manners, the kind that remind us that manners spring from a certain moral view—that you do tribute to the world and the people in it by being kind and showing respect, by sending the note and the flowers, by being loyal, and cheering a friend. She was a living reminder in the age of Oprah that personal dignity is always, still, an option, a choice that is open to you. She was, really, the last aristocrat. Few people get to symbolize a world, but she did, and that world is receding, and we know it and mourn that too.

Those who knew her or watched her from afar groped for the words that could explain their feeling of loss. A friend of hers said, with a soft, sad voice, that what we’re losing is what we long for: the old idea of being cultivated. “She had this complex, colorful mind, she loved a turn of phrase. She didn’t grow up in front of the TV set, but reading the classics and thinking about them and having thoughts about history. Oh,” he said, “we’re losing her kind.”

I echoed the sentiment to another of her friends, who cut me off. “She wasn’t a kind, she was sui generis.” And so she was.

America continues in its generational shift; the great ones of the ‘50s and ‘60s, big people of a big era, are going, and too often these days we’re saying goodbye. But Jackie Kennedy’s death is different. No ambivalence clouds her departure, and that leaves us feeling lonely. America this week is a lonelier place.

SHE WAS TOO YOUNG, DESERVED MORE TIME, AND THE FACT THAT SHE DIDN’T GET IT seems like a new level of unfairness. She never saw her husband grow old, and now she won’t see her grandchildren grow up.

But just writing those words makes me want to break out of sadness and reach back in time and speak ‘60s-speak, or at least how the ‘60s spoke before they turned dark. So I guess I mean I want to speak Kennedyese. I want to say, Aw listen, kid, don’t be glum. What a life she had.

She herself said something like this to a friend, in a conversation just months ago, when she first knew she was sick. She told him she was optimistic and hoped to live 20 more years. “But even if I have only five years, so what, I’ve had a great run.”

They said it was a life of glamour, but it was really a life of splendor. I want to say, Listen, kid, buck up, don’t be blue—the thing about this woman and her life is that she was a patriot, who all by herself one terrible weekend lifted and braced the heart of a nation.

That weekend in November ’63, the weekend of the muffled drums, was the worst time for America in the last half of this century. We forget now the shame we felt as a nation at what had happened in Dallas. A President had been murdered, quite savagely, quite brutally, and the whole appalled world was looking and judging. And she redeemed it. She took away the shame by how she acted. She was young, only 34, and only a few days before she’d been covered in her husband’s blood—but she came home to Washington and walked down those broad avenues dressed in black, her pale face cleansed and washed clean by trauma. She walked head up, back straight and proud, in a flowing black veil. There was the moment in the Capitol Rotunda, when she knelt with her daughter Caroline. It was the last moment of public farewell, and to say it she bent and kissed the flag that draped the coffin that contained her husband—and a whole nation, a whole world, was made silent at the sight of patriotism made tender. Her Irish husband had admired class. That weekend she showed it in abundance. What a parting gift.

A nation watched, and would never forget. The world watched, and found its final judgment summed up by a young woman, a British journalist who had come to witness the funeral, and filed home: “Jacqueline Kennedy has today given her country the one thing it has always lacked, and that is majesty.”

To have done that for her country—to have lived through that weekend and done what she did from that Friday to that Monday—to have shown the world that the killing of the President was not America, the loving dignity of our saying goodbye was America—to have done that was an act of supreme patriotism.

And a lot of us thought that anything good or bad she did for the rest of her life, from that day on, didn’t matter, for she’d earned her way, she deserved a free pass, she’d earned our thanks forever.

IN A REMARKABLE INTERVIEW SHE GAVE THEODORE WHITE THE FOLLOWING DECEMBER, she revealed what a tough little romantic she was. “Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was. You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough. For Jack, history was full of heroes. And if it made him this way—if it made him see the heroes—maybe other little boys will see. Men are such a combination of good and bad. Jack had this hero idea of history, this idealistic view.” And she spoke of Camelot and gave the world an image of her husband that is still, for all the revelations of the past three decades, alive. She provided an image of herself too, perhaps more than she knew. The day before she died, a young schoolteacher in New York City who hadn’t even been born when she spoke to Teddy White, told me of his shock that she was leaving us. “I thought she would be like Guinevere,” he said. “I thought she would ride off on a horse, in her beautiful silence, and never die.”

HER FRIENDS SAW A GREAT POIGNANCE IN HER, AND A GREAT YEARNING. BEHIND HER shyness there was an enormous receptivity to the sweetness of life and its grace. A few years ago, friends, a couple, gave a small dinner party for two friends who had just married, and Mrs. Onassis was among the guests. It was an elegant New York gathering, a handful of the renowned of show business and media and society, all gathered to dine on the top floor of a skyscraper. The evening was full of laughter and warm toasts, and the next day her hosts received from Mrs. Onassis a handwritten, hand-delivered letter. “How could there be an evening more magical than last night? Everyone is enhanced and touched by being with two people just discovering how much they love each other. I have known and adored ((him)) for so long, always wishing he would find happiness…Seeing him with ((her)) and getting to know her, I see he has at last—and she so exceptional, whom you describe so movingly, has too. I am so full of joy for both—I just kept thinking about it all day today. What wonderful soothing hosts you are—what a dazzling gathering of their friends—in that beautiful tower, with New York glittering below…”

With New York glittering below. The world, I am told, is full of those notes, always handwritten and lucid and spontaneous—and always correct. “The notes were the way she was intimate” with outsiders, said a friend. The only insiders, really, were her family.

THERE WAS ALWAYS IN HER A SENSE OF HISTORY AND THE SENSE THAT CHILDREN ARE watching—children are watching and history will judge us, and the things that define our times are the great actions we take, all against the odds and with a private valor of which the world will little note nor long remember. But that’s the big thing—the personal struggle, and the sense that our history day by day is forged from it. That was her intuition, and that intuition was a gift to us, for it helped produce the walk down the broad avenues of Washington that day when her heart was broken.

She was one sweet and austere tune. Her family arranged a private funeral, and that of course is what she’d want and that is what is fitting. But I know how I wish she would be buried.

I wish we could take her, in the city she loved or the capital she graced, and put a flag on her coffin and the coffin on a catafalque, and march it down a great avenue, with an honor guard and a horse that kicks, as Black Jack did, and muffled drums. I wish we could go and honor her, those of us who were children when she was in the White House, and our parents who wept that weekend long ago, and our children who have only a child’s sense of who and what she was. I wish we could stand on the sidewalk as the caisson passes, and take off our hat, and explain to our sons and daughters and say, “That is a patriot passing by.” I wish I could see someone’slittle boy, in a knee-length coat, lift his arm and salute.