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JFK The Stained-Glass Image
As with Lincoln, assassination lifted John F. Kennedy to a beatified myth, in large part because of the guidelines set for books about him.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Don’t call Bobby “Bobby,” as everybody else does. Salinger, Sorensen, Fay, and Mrs. Lincoln dutifully make it “Bob.” Schlesinger prefers “Robert Kennedy,” even in describing the celebrated occasion when, fully clothed, he jumped or fell into Robert’s swimming pool. There are a few exceptions, almost unavoidable since the books are full of remarks by their President in which he used the politically awkward diminutive. Schlesinger breaks ranks all the way on the few pages that cover the events at the 1960 convention after Kennedy offered Johnson the vice-presidential nomination and, apparently to his astonishment, was accepted, and his brother then appeared in the Johnson hotel suite on what Johnson interpreted as a campaign to talk him out of it. In the farrago that followed, right out of the second act of Three Men on a Horse, the cast of characters included another Bobby, last name Baker. Possibly Schlesinger won a special dispensation, arguing that to play fair and also call the latter “Robert” struck him as a bit much. However, in the account of the same melee by Sorensen, now quite a formal fellow for a born-and-bred Nebraskan, it is “Robert Baker.”
Pretend you always called the President’s wife “Mrs. Kennedy” or “Jacqueline,” not “Jackie,” as the whole world knows her. Although he complies, this stipulation must have been a particular drag to Paul Fay, a highly informal type whose own wife the President always referred to as “the Bride,” who knew Kennedy for many years as “Shafty Boy,” and who shared with him a fraternity of pals called, in middle age as in their youthful Navy days, by such nicknames as Bitter Bill, Dirty John, and Jim Jam Jumping Jim.
The President’s father is not to be called “Joe,” “Old Joe,” or “Big Joe.” Refer to him as Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy or “the Ambassador”—and always respectfully. (“I would like to see Red Fay write this story if my father was not ill—I think it is an outrage,” runs a notation on the Fay manuscript beside an anecdote about Kennedy, Sr., that did not appear in the book.)
Rules having to do with nomenclature need not signify much. Yet anyone reading a biography of Jack Kennedy that leaves out characters called “Jackie,” “Bobby,” and “Big Joe” may be entitled to wonder what else has been omitted to suit his survivors. The only matters suppressed in his book, says Sorensen, are those absent “for reasons of security or propriety.” One of the men delegated by Mrs. Kennedy to help blue-pencil the Fay as well as the Salinger efforts is J. Kenneth Galbraith (who once wrote an essay on the general topic of the political build-up, which he defined as “synthesizing a public reputation as a matter of deliberate design”). Most of the deletions that were eventually made in the books in question, he wrote recently, “involved the elimination of language or anecdotes which, out of context, cast reflection on the dignity of the office of President or which might, without purpose, have injured the feelings of personal friends of President Kennedy”—a patriotic and benevolent censorship policy with built-in conveniences. Mrs. Kennedy, he added, insisted on protecting more feelings—that is, removing more material—than he thought strictly necessary. One noticeable excision from all the books, just for openers: the name of any woman Kennedy ever had the slightest interest in other than his wife, unless you count Mrs. Lincoln’s passing reference to a few anonymous girls so unimportant to Kennedy in his premarital years that he usually took them to the movies once apiece and had his secretary set up the dates at that. One of Fay’s unforgiven transgressions, according to rumor, is his casual mention of the presence at the inaugural festivities, presumably with Kennedy’s approval, of a young actress the President is said to have admired. Other evidence in the Fay book makes it obvious that Grand Old Lovable saw a great deal of his old Navy friend in the decade between the PT-boat episode and Kennedy’s marriage at the rather advanced age of thirty-six, but virtually everything that went on in that unencumbered time is apparently among the thousands of words that Fay was persuaded to sacrifice in the vain hope of staying in the family favor. His book was published by Harper and Row, which had brought out Profiles in Courage and at the time was hoping to publish Manchester’s Death of a President without legal incident. Clearly, if the present keepers of the eternal flame can prevent it, there will be no Ann Rutledge chapter in the Kennedy legend.