Camelot's Punitive Liberalism

Jackie, which tells the story of Jacqueline Kennedy and the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, is a moving and socially important film. It’s about grief, but also about how a pliant press allowed a grieving widow to create a powerful myth that was related to reality, but only tenuously. It’s about the media willingly succumbing to manipulation.

The framing device for Jackie is a journalist’s sit-down interview that takes place in Hyannis Port with the suddenly former First Lady. Answering questions upon the President’s death in Dallas that late November day in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy revels, simultaneously, in a deep and soulful sorrow and a sharp ability to control reporters. From the first moment she appears on screen, Natalie Portman owns the role: She nails the breathy accent, the innocence, the awkward little walk, but also the iron will that would manifest itself during the making of JFK’s funeral arrangements.

Portman’s Jackie is shaken with grief but knows exactly what she wants, and how to deliver a message—true or not—through the media. In the days after the President was killed, his widow attempted to make John F. Kennedy a mythic figure, as well as a martyr to civil rights. But as the brilliant James Piereson observed in his groundbreaking 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, Jackie’s stories were not completely true. JFK dragged his feet on civil rights. Slain by communist Lee Harvey Oswald, a defector to the Soviet Union and supporter of Fidel Castro, JFK was a martyr not to the civil rights movement but to the Cold War.

For the American Left, as for Mrs. Kennedy, the reality of who killed her husband was too much to take—after all, many of Kennedy’s critics on the Left themselves had communist sympathies. To compensate, they blamed the assassination on the Right wing, a.k.a. the “climate of hate” in Dallas created by anticommunists, Southerners, and the John Birch Society.

Jackie shows that Mrs. Kennedy not only went along with this fairy tale (to use the movie’s word), but was herself one of its authors. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist,” Piereson reports her as saying, a line that is also accurately stated in the film. This was a downplaying of the seriousness of the threat that communism posed to America, a threat that the late President in fact took very seriously. Jackie insists on wearing her bloodied outfit off the plane so she can “show them what they’ve done,” meaning the right-wingers who supposedly murdered her husband. She then reveals to a reporter—twice—that John Kennedy loved the soundtrack to the musical Camelot, thus linking her husband and his administration with the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The title song of the Camelot soundtrack is used in effective juxtaposition with shots of a tormented Jackie alone in the White House smoking cigarettes and taking tranquilizers.

What is so powerful about Jackie is that director Pablo Lorrain conveys the trauma that Jacqueline Kennedy experienced with such pathos that the audience can’t help but sympathize with her. The imagery of the assassination has become part of the country’s collective consciousness, but this film makes viewers really slow down and appreciate what exactly happened that Friday in Dealey Plaza. In one sequence, the audience is put right behind the presidential limousine, zooming down the road on the way to the hospital after the deadly shots had been fired. The camera lifts skyward above the car, then drifts gracefully overhead, looking down on Jackie cradling her husband’s bloody head. The string arrangements by composer Mica Levi are appropriately funereal and Homeric, and the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine suitably autumnal.

Back in Washington, we see the widow packing up boxes in the White House, explaining to the Kennedy children what happened, and taking long walks and having theological arguments with a priest (expertly played by veteran John Hurt). Taking all of this in, we can understand that a woman who just buried her husband after his sudden and violent death might be prone to mythologize him. We’re seeing not a celebrity, but a loving woman who has been shattered. Portman is astonishing, haunting and brilliant in this role.

What should earn our contempt is that the media went along with the grief-stricken First Lady’s myth-making. The journalist in Jackie, played with curt efficiency by Billy Crudup, is not given a name, but he is obviously based on Theodore White of Life magazine. White was a respected journalist and author of the campaign book The Making of the President, 1960. He was also sympathetic to Kennedy. As Piereson recently noted, White basically let Mrs. Kennedy control the content of the article that appeared in the December 6, 1963 issue of Life, which at the time had a massive reach—a readership of more than 30 million people.

The article’s shift of attention away from Kennedy’s communist killer not only satisfied Jackie’s interpretation of her husband, but allowed the Left to blame America, particularly conservative America, for Kennedy’s death. This resulted in what Piereson has called “punitive liberalism.”

Where JFK’s liberalism was pragmatic, patriotic and anticommunist, the liberalism that replaced it was paranoid, anti-religious, utopian, and—by the time the Democratic National Committee met in Chicago in 1968—violent. It tried America for JFK’s murder and found it guilty—of that, as well as of irredeemable racism, militarism, xenophobia, and greed. Suffering from a collective denial of the actual facts of Kennedy’s death at the hands of Oswald, liberalism began to turn against America. This attitude of recrimination has served the Left well, on and off, for decades, including a revival during the last eight years. It may have finally caused a backlash that resulted in the election of Donald Trump.