Jacqueline Kennedy, mourning in Hyannis Port in December, gave life to legend as surely as she lighted the eternal flame over her husband's grave on a hillside in Virginia. A friend, the Life magazine writer Theodore White, came to see her and she reminisced how "Jack," before going to sleep, liked to play a song from the end of a popular musical. The lines he loved to hear commanded us never to forget that for "one brief shining moment" there had been a chivalrous kingdom known as Camelot. She had a picture in her mind of little boy Jack, sick most of the time, lying in bed reading history, reading about the Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough. "For Jack, history was full of heroes."

The romance of Camelot, of youthful gallantry and love, came to exert a strong hold on the public imagination. It would be fanciful, one must guess, to suppose this has had much to do with politics. It is more likely that "Camelot" has prevailed as a metaphor for the glittering style the Kennedys brought to the White House and the sense of exhilarating possibility in his two years, ten months, and two days in the presidency. Jacqueline, who had no appetite for politics, put her energies and taste into making the White House the first house in the land. Bullying wealthy friends and begging, she transformed the dowdy public rooms with the best in American art and history and showed off their beauty on a television tour for the people. The White House became a theater of the arts and intellect, the stilted state dinners made into cheerful and elegant parties. The zenith perhaps was in April 1962, when the Kennedys honored 49 Western Hemisphere Nobel Prize winners. It was vintage Kennedy to welcome them as "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jacqueline's cultivated taste was the inspiration for these parties. Kennedy invested Camelot with his vitality, his relish for social gaiety, his preference for excellence, his conviction that the arts were central to a nation's purpose, his enjoyment of the needle of debate, his courage in pain and his ironic wit and laconic self-depreciation. Told the Republican National Committee had passed a resolution condemning him as a failure, he said he was sure the vote was unanimous. He rejoiced in his wife's knowledge of French culture and the fluency that so impressed General de Gaulle on a state visit to France. He meant it when he said, "I am proud to have been the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."

Copyright © 1998 by Harold Evans