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JFK Anniversary Recalls the Age of America's Camelot

JFK Anniversary Recalls the Age of America's Camelot
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Friday, November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy, who brought youth and energy to the White House when he became president in 1961. He and First Lady Jackie Kennedy brought a unique sense of style and glamour that Washington had never seen before. It is a time that came to be known as ‘The Age of Camelot’, a reference to a hit Broadway musical at the time, one of the president’s favorites.

January, 1961. The new president and his First Lady emerge from the White House, and a new era begins in Washington.

“It was first of all that she was always extremely well dressed, and women loved to see her, and there was this mystery about her too that she did not come out of the White House much, did not give a lot of interviews," said author Thurston Clarke, who has written extensively about the Kennedy years.

The public’s fascination with Jackie Kennedy began during the 1960 presidential campaign.

“Politics is one of the most rewarding lives a woman can have, to be married to a politician. I think every woman wants to feel needed and in politics you are," Jackie Kennedy said.

But at times she found public life a struggle.

“She was somewhat secretive. She was elusive. She was like Kennedy. So she withheld herself from the public to a certain degree, and that is what made her, I think, so appealing," said Clarke.

That appeal extended well beyond the United States. Jackie Kennedy became an international celebrity after she travelled with the president to Europe.

“I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it," said President Kennedy.

“And she did charm de Gaulle, she was an expert in French history. And afterwards, de Gaulle said to JFK, 'You know, your wife knows more French history that most French people do,'" said Clarke.

Jackie Kennedy’s star power was also on display during visits to India and Pakistan and she relished her role as her husband’s unofficial ambassador at large.

Back at home, the Kennedys projected an aura of the all-American family.

“There’s a wonderful picture of when JFK comes back from his triumphant trip to Berlin and Ireland and he gets off the helicopter in Hyannis Port and they throw their arms around each other and give this incredible hug," said Clarke.

But in private the truth was often more complicated.

“For many years she had to pretend that her marriage was perfect, which of course it was not. And she knew even when she got married, she knew her husband had a reputation as a womanizer," Clarke said.

To escape the pressures of Washington, the first couple often invited close friends to relax out on the water off the New England coast.

Jackie Kennedy was more at home on horseback, an experience she was eager to share with children Caroline and John Jr.

“She loved it. She had ridden as a girl. She had ridden throughout her life. She wanted Caroline and John to ride. It was very important to her," said Clarke.

It was Jackie Kennedy who, a week after her husband’s assassination, compared their time in the White House to Camelot.

“Jackie was already thinking about his place in history and his judgment by what Kennedy called the ‘High Court’ of history. It was a court that was on his mind throughout his thousand day presidency," said Clarke.

Many historians see John Kennedy’s legacy as a complementary mix of style and substance.

"In his final months he had finally done what Robert Frost the poet had urged him to do with the poem at his inaugural, which is to marry poetry to power. Finally, at the end of his life, he had married the poetry of his words to the power of his presidency," said Clarke.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, ‘The Age of Camelot’ remains an important part of John Kennedy’s legacy.
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.