The picturesque presidency
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.
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.