Commentary

The Mythmaker In The White House: Jackie And History

“Jackie,” a movie starring Natalie Portman, is a luminous, visual tone poem that covers our previously unknowable First Lady in the compressed week or so after the JFK assassination on Friday Nov. 22, 1963.

In an instant, the country was torn apart by shock and grief. And it was the first time that everyone could share the minute-by-minute living history via television.  The subsequent days and nights included the tears of Walter Cronkite as he wiped his eyes while announcing JFK’s death, and the live, violent, on-camera murder of suspected shooter Lee Harvey Oswald, while being taken into custody that Sunday.

The networks suspended any other coverage through Monday, the day of the funeral, for which LBJ shut down the country and declared a national day of mourning.

But somehow in that brief time — from Friday, when Mrs. Kennedy, 34, famously caught bits of her husband’s blood and brains on her pink suit while riding next to him in the open motorcade in Dallas, through Monday — she planned and flawlessly executed a state funeral based on Abraham Lincoln’s, that gave every-glued-to-the TV set American a sense of history and continuity, a meaningful and symbolic outlet for their grieving.

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Although she was dogged at every turn by officials worried about security risks in the outdoor march, she walked in her mourner’s veil behind the caisson to the Cathedral. A million people lined the streets.

After the funeral, President Kennedy was buried in Arlington Cemetery, next to an eternal flame — only because, days before, in the pouring rain, her heels sinking into the mud, Jackie had staked out and engineered the perfect spot, despite a fight from her mother-in-law, who had wanted her son interred in the Kennedy family plot in Brookline, Mass.

Jackie also managed to throw a third birthday party for her son John in that time, and packed up and moved herself and her two young children out of the White House so that Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson’s family could take over.  They made clear that they were itching to get in.

“I don’t have a home,” she says, in shock, in the movie, before moving into a borrowed townhouse in Georgetown.

Not incidentally, in the more than-one-can-bear department, three months earlier, she had delivered a baby, Patrick, who lived only for a day and a half. And before Caroline, she had a baby girl, Arabella, who was stillborn.

But the movie shows that there is soldiering on, and then there is Jackie. She did it with superhuman levels of taste, grace, decorum, and reverence for history and the office of the President. (And — at least according to the movie — she also operated in a manic haze of sleep deprivation, smoking, drinking, and some pill-taking.)

Jackie leaned on her encyclopedic knowledge of American history and Greek tragedy, but she was also a master of public relations and had a prescient genius for image-enhancing. Fifty years before “optics” became a thing, she understood the importance of both statecraft and stage- craft.

Only a week after the assassination, while temporarily camping out in Hyannis Port, she invited a journalist, played by Billy Crudup (a composite of Arthur Schlesinger, William Manchester, and Theodore H. White) to interview her. That’s when, fearing that history would judge her husband harshly, she single-handedly invented the mythology of “Camelot” to symbolize his administration.

Still, the film shows that this Iron Lady was very much a woman, and wife, of her time, often dismissed as a “silly little debutante” — and widely admired, but also belittled, for her great style, education, and worldliness. She was practically the embodiment of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” a revolutionary best seller that was published that same year, in 1963. Its thesis — that strong, talented, educated women needed lives beyond kinder and kuchen — is still being debated.

The movie hangs on a brilliant physical scaffolding. It begins in 1962, with Jackie’s famous televised tour of the White House — which, in a stroke by Nancy Tuckerman, her social secretary (and roommate at the tony Miss Porter’s boarding school), played by Greta Gerwig in the movie,  Jackie called “the People’s House.”

This was the first time cameras were allowed into the private rooms. Jackie was in the midst of working on a “restoration,” bringing in important historical pieces to liven up a cold old house that had long gone shabby. (She later admitted that Jack had called her restoration work “her little vanity project.”)

The work had gone slowly, since she had to raise funds from private donors for each piece acquired.

And in showing the secret back rooms of the house, the movie delves into exactly the thing that Jackie incisively acknowledged and manipulated so well: the difference between public and private, what is true, and what is “performance.”

“When something’s written down, does that make it true?” she asks the journalist, whose work she demands to edit heavily. “I’m accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what’s real.”  With that, she inhales deeply on a cigarette and announces, “I don’t smoke.”

The tour also introduced the country to her breathy, Marilyn-like voice, with its curiously patrician Mid-Atlantic finishing school elocution—an accent shared exactly by Edie Beale, her cousin from Grey Gardens.

The movie isn’t perfect.  Natalie Portman is a terrific actress, but physically reminded me more of Jackie’s smaller, birdier sister, Lee, than Jackie herself.  Also, Mrs. Kennedy Onassis (as she later was called) had a striking face with a hint of exoticism: wide-set eyes, cheekbones, full lips.  Portman’s face is narrower, and more like a porcelain doll’s.

What the movie shows so heartbreakingly is Jackie’s immediate loss of identity in losing her husband — and her entire world. She left the White House with very little, packing up books, clothing, toys, and various rocking chairs.  She worried about money, and mentioned that Mrs. Lincoln “died destitute.”  That explains, after Robert Kennedy’s death, her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. He could give her and her kids a private island of security, literally and figuratively.

“Objects and artifacts last longer than people,” she says in the course of the movie. “It takes a long time to establish traditions.”

This thought actually gave me some comfort, as we prepare to watch the Obamas leave the White House and have President-elect Trump move in.

He will bring a very different style, and even a nontraditional set-up to the place, with Ivanka and Jared perhaps living close by in D. C. while his wife Melania and son Barron stay in New York City until June.

The movie shows us that despite all the change, the White House is a place of profound legacy, not belonging to one president, but to all of them: the sum total of the people who populated  those rooms for the last 200 years.

In the film, while fighting for such a pageant-filled ceremony to honor JFK, Jackie says,  “Losing a president is like losing a father. Decades from now it will serve a purpose.”

Indeed.  People and objects are finite. The film allows us to get some perspective, and take the long view.

6 comments about "The Mythmaker In The White House: Jackie And History".
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  1. Elissa Moses from Ipsos, December 9, 2016 at 2:04 p.m.

    Great review!

  2. Penelope Wolfe from Penny Wolfe Creative Services replied, December 10, 2016 at 2:23 a.m.

    Informative. Thanks for writing some fabulous reading.

  3. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, December 10, 2016 at 11:07 p.m.

    Terrific review - great writing as always Barbara -  and it might be a great movie for someone with no recollection of the Kennedys but I don't have any interest in watching Natalie Portman imitate the inimitable.

  4. Jim English from The Met Museum, December 14, 2016 at 12:12 p.m.

    The assasination hasn't faded into history now over 53 years later.  I agree with Claudia that our younger citizens will now have a chance to learn more about Mrs. Kennedy's courage in that tragic event.

  5. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, December 14, 2016 at 5:57 p.m.


    One very minor correction to an error I've seen twice in the past few days.  Oswald was not shot while being taken into custody. He was already in custody and was being moved to another location after an interrogation. 

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, December 14, 2016 at 6:38 p.m.

    Thanks, Chuck. You are absolutely correct. He was being moved to another location and paraded past the media and onlookers! Duly noted. 

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