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My Six Years with JFK
Living with an endlessly vexing and compelling President thirty years after Dallas
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
I suppose that’s right. John F. Kennedy was intelligent, curious, funny, positive, humble at heart on the big things—life-enhancing. He lived in pain most of his life and had always expected to die young, talked about it occasionally as a fact of the life he lived as fully as time and energy and willing friends allowed. “I think about him, more than I should,” his brother-in-law Stephen Smith told me. “One of life’s great pleasures was spending time with that man.”
He could surprise me. When he was cut, he bled. There were political things he could not do. Going to Ireland in the spring of 1963, he remembered still the hurt more than fifteen years before when a friend, Pamela Digby Churchill (later Pamela Harriman), compared the village of his ancestors to Tobacco Road. That same year, when he desperately needed every vote he could get in Congress, he lost one when the California representative Clem Miller was killed in a plane crash. His men came to tell him that the only Democrat who could hold the seat in that conservative district was Miller’s widow, and she would run only if he asked her himself. “She’s got five children, doesn’t she?” Kennedy said. “I can’t ask that. We’ll just have to give up the seat.”
But then he was astonishingly cruel to his own wife, as all the world knows —or thinks it does. I am old enough to think that no one ever knows what really goes on between one man and one woman except the two of them- maybe. Jacqueline Kennedy, who was only thirty-one years old when her husband became President, could be, as he would say, “one tough cookie.”
His marriage was a subject of negotiation, often by third parties, one of them Angier Biddle Duke, the White House’s chief of protocol. Early in the administration the President sent Duke to talk to Mrs. Kennedy about the role of First Lady. “Tell her,” the President said, “the responsibility of the wife of the President in regards to visitors and things.”
“What do you want to do, Mrs. Kennedy?” Duke began.
“As little as possible,” she said. “I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m not a public official.”
Later Kennedy asked Duke to tell her that she was hurting him politically by accepting expensive gifts from other world leaders. The issue of the moment was horses offered by the King of Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister of Ireland. “The Arabs give her these horses and then the Israelis come along with an old Bible worth about twelve dollars.”
“I understand what you’re saying, Angie,” Mrs. Kennedy said after hearing Duke out. “But there’s a problem.”
“I want the horses,” she said.
Another time, Pierre Salinger, his press secretary, told the President his wife was not coming down to greet a delegation of Girl Scouts in the Rose Garden. “She said,” Salinger reported, “she thought this was not her problem, it was yours.”
“Just give me a minute,” said the President. “I’ll straighten this out.”
He was gone for fifteen minutes but came back smiling. “Mrs. Kennedy is going to do it,” he said. “Set it up.”
“A new dress?” the press secretary said.
“No,” Kennedy said. “Worse than that: two symphonies.”
The man could laugh at himself. He liked to quote an Indian proverb, which he thought was an old Irish saying: “there are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third.”
It was hard, for me at least, to resist a man whose real ideology was irony. “Life is unfair,” he said in answer to a news-conference question about the complaints of mobilized reservists spending winter on distant military bases to demonstrate American resolve to the Soviets. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country. … Some people are sick and others are well.”
So, yes, I liked the John Kennedy I spent time with the last six years. At a bit of a distance. I would not have liked to be his friend, though. The price was too high. His friends had to give up too much of themselves to make him larger than life.