Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life of JFK4: A Dazzling White House

The first months of the Kennedy presidency were a media feast. The White House had a young family with movie-star looks and a flair for publicity: children and pets, a President who quipped his way through TV press conferences, a First Lady with continental taste in fashion, food and decor. After eight years of Ike’s garbled syntax and Mamie Eisenhower’s plastered bangs, the country was star-struck.

The Kennedy dazzle made editors immune to mistakes. There was a black-and-white photograph by Richard Avedon of Caroline Kennedy joyously jumping out of her father’s lap toward the camera. I put it on the cover. The Circulation Department warned it would “die” on the newsstands among all the four—color competition. In theory, they were right. But the issue sold out. The First Family was circulation magic.

In the White House, the new First Lady overcame her reserved nature to become the elegant figure who would prompt her husband to say, “I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to France.”

In her advice piece, Eleanor Roosevelt had warned, “You will feel you’re no longer dressing yourself—-you are dressing a public monument.” Not so with “Jackie,” as magazine covers would start calling her. She soon became a fashion icon in a way that would not be matched until decades later by Princess Di.

Even as the Kennedys were changing the rules in pop culture, politics was something else. The President’s popularity soared, but the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco.

Three months after taking office, despite misgivings about the advice of the CIA and military, he went ahead with the invasion of Cuba after being told we would be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?) and withdrew after realizing he had been misled, publicly accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

“This Administration intends to be candid about its errors,” he told reporters. “As a wise man once said, ‘An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors, and we expect you to point them out when we miss them."

In private, Kennedy was more blunt: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."

Of all the Presidents I’ve seen up close, JFK was the only one to learn and grow in office—-he never made the same mistake twice. What he took away from the Bay of Pigs, he would later put to good use during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

John F. Kennedy was on a steep learning curve, and he needed to be.

Next: Sex in the White House 

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