The picturesque presidency

  • John F. Kennedy campaigning for president, 1960.
  • Sen. John Kennedy and his bride Jacqueline at their wedding reception, Sept. 12, 1953.
  • Enthusiastic supporters of Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy react at a campaign event, 1960.
  • (L) President Kennedy aboard the yacht “Honey Fitz”, off Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Aug. 31, 1963. (R) U.S. President-elect John F. Kennedy sits with his wife Jacqueline and their daughter Caroline at Hyannis, Mass., on July 25, 1960.
  • Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy campaigns, 1960.
  • Senator John F. Kennedy reaches his hands into a crowd while campaigning for the presidency in California, 1960.
  • John F. Kennedy waves with his brother, Bobby Kennedy, and family, as they prepare to board a place bound for Massachusetts, July 17, 1960.
  • John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline address supporters during an election meeting, Nov. 8, 1960.
  • Vice president-elect Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson greets his running mate, president-elect Sen. John F. Kennedy as he arrives at the LBJ ranch in Texas, Nov. 16, 1960.
  • (L) Jacqueline Kennedy attends the inauguration of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961. (R) President John F. Kennedy at his desk in the Oval Office in Washington, 1961.
  • Jackie Kennedy and her daughter Carolyn, 1960.
  • President John F. Kennedy sits aboard the United States Coast Guard boat Manitou in Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island, Aug. 26, 1962.
  • President Kennedy and daughter Caroline aboard the Honey Fitz, off Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Aug. 25, 1963.
  • Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Aug. 4, 1962.
  • Caroline Kennedy whispers to her father during a visit to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Aug. 26, 1963.
  • (L) John F. Kennedy, Jr. gives a leg-kicking kiss to his dad, President Kennedy, on his arrival at Otis Air Force Base, Ma., on August 23, 1963. (R) President John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. in the Oval Office.
  • U.S. President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy sit with their children, John Jr. and Caroline, on a portico to view the exhibition drill of the famed Royal Highland Black Watch Regiment on the South Lawn, Nov. 13, 1963.
  • President John F. Kennedy sits for a moment at White House microphones in Washington, after finishing his radio-television broadcast to the nation on July 26, 1963,
  • President John F. Kennedy and his son enter the Otis Air Force base hospital, Massachusetts,  Aug. 11, 1963.
  • President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963.

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When Jacqueline Kennedy summoned the journalist Theodore H. White for an interview that appeared in Life magazine on December 6, 1963, she insisted that the article emphasize that the Kennedy administration was like Camelot, a brief shining moment that would never come again.

As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., later pointed out, “The image was not perhaps, on analysis, all that romantic. King Arthur’s Camelot concluded in betrayal and death.” It was also self-aggrandizing, vaguely anti-democratic, and (being derived not from Tennyson nor Malory but from Alan Jay Lerner) a lot less highbrow than the Casals-listening, Cicero-quoting Kennedy that Life preferred. It’s hard not to suspect that the president’s widow was simply free-associating with White’s name, which closely resembled that of T.H. (Terence Hanbury) White, author of the novel on which the musical Camelot was based. 

No matter. It stuck. “Camelot” became a synonym for “Kennedy glamor,” and that was that.

Related: The day before JFK was assassinated

There were, we now know, darker aspects to John F. Kennedy’s character and to his presidency. But they were well-hidden then, and they escape the photographic record entirely. The portraits captured only that Kennedy was handsome, charming, socially graceful, and intelligent, and that he took a quiet, visible pleasure in the presence of his elegant wife and beguiling young children. The pictures also conveyed that Kennedy was rich–not in a stuffy way (he was Irish, therefore excluded from the WASP aristocracy) but in a manner reminiscent of Cary Grant and William Powell in the screwball comedies of the 1930s. You couldn’t get away with that now, but you could then, and he did.

There’s never been, nor will ever again be, a White House that loved the camera quite so much, and in that limited sense Jacqueline Kennedy was right. The prelapsarian, circumspect, glamorizing era of journalism being well behind us, we will never again see a presidency more relentlessly picturesque than Camelot.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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