Camelot Revisted

A footnote upon on Mrs Kennedy and the making of the myth of Camelot

This week saw the release of the tapes made by Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy for the historian Arthur M Schlesinger in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963….

Her daughter Caroline agreed to their early release as USA now celebrates and commemorates the brief shining moment that was the Kennedy Camelot. There is a book and the discs that can be bought for $60.00 from the Kennedy Memorial Library. Caroline commented that she was shocked by the conventional views expressed by her mother who was then only approaching her mid-thirties. That struck me as perceptive in its lack of historical perception. That this woman, admittedly educated, cultured, witty and literate, herself a child of the 1930s and a world of some privilege, but more importantly a woman of her times, that this woman in her hats, and immaculate Chanel suits with handbag, court shoes and always gloves, would have been other than conventional in her view both of women and men and marriage, is more surprising than Mrs Kennedy’s conventional attitudes.

My parents’ childhoods, although in Ireland, were contemporary with Jack Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. Theirs was the generation where women still covered their heads in church, where a woman’s reputation was lost by merely going a public house unaccompanied and where contraception and indeed abortion were illegal.

The Kennedy’s arrived in the White House as a breath of fresh air…new and modern…but naturally enough the modern they indeed were, was very different from our modern. It is apparently not possible even for her daughter to see back into the world as it still was in her childhood. Women in the Western cultures have come such a long way, so quickly, it is almost impossible to imagine how much nearer they were to the world of the burqa for much of the early part of the twentieth century than they were to our world and to the world of values which women and men thankfully now inhabit.

The Enlightenment ‘philosophes’ waged a war of ideas that shook an entire social establishment and made it not only possible for Figaro to marry Susanna…on their own terms….but imagined a different equal world between classes and sexes for which the revolutionaries in America, France and even Ireland tantalisingly almost reached but like Tantalus which the Revolutionary Wars pulled from their grasp.

Though the subsequent reactions, cultural and religious, struggled in the following century to put that genii back inside the bottle…ineluctably the freedoms the ‘philosophes’ imagined for a middle class elite, in time, became the basis of the freedoms for the many in the capitalist democracies manufactured in the West in the last century.

But I feel that their considerable achievements will be small beer indeed when compared to the social changes fired from the cultural upheavals of the later twentieth century in which first, women, then gay men and women, were allowed for the first time to take a recognised place on the stage of human history. They must still struggle to find a proper and equal place on that stage but at least they will never live out their lives, off-stage, in the shadows and on the wings, muttering prompts into history’s microphone only to have their words heard long after they have lived and died….

And never let it be forgot for all her conventional attitudes and views…it was Mrs Kennedy who coined ‘Camelot’ as the short-hand for the Kennedy Presidency…..and despite all we know the myth of Camelot has endured…and like all great myths will endure…because it is into our myths we pour our aspirations and hopes for something better than we have and bigger than we are….and for that alone Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy is more than the conventional footnote for which she might be mistaken….

And talking of voices off-stage, whilst on the JFK Library site, I listened to President’s entire speech at Amherst College on the subject of the Arts. In an educational bastion symbolising the power of inherited wealth he spoke movingly the powerlessness of inherited poverty….

I doubt that Mr Cameron or Mr Gove have ever listened to it…but then I doubt Mr Cameron knows who Robert Frost is and Mr Gove thinks there aren’t any poets after John Dryden…

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