In the escalating political climate of ugliness, division, disregard for educational opportunity, and religious unrest and confusion, a new book has led to more bricks thrown at a White House many have seen as a touchstone for hope and opportunity.
This latest memoir by Mimi Alford, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath, has led to sarcastic accusations of illusion, hypocrisy, and manipulation (polite versions of what has been said and accused) in the use of the term "Camelot" to describe the approximate 1,000 days of office of our assassinated 35th president. I believe the term deserves perspective and clarification.
Please, as you read what I have to say, do not see me as an apologist. As a mother, I find the experiences reported by Mimi Alford to be beyond appalling. That said, long before the 1960s and to this day, and predictably til the end of time, though I wish this were not the case -- powerful men will continue to be sexual magnates for young, beautiful, and ambitious women; and regardless of the reasons, these relationships will be consensual.
Although I surely do not think it is the author's intent, her book is feeding a climate of character assassination, oversimplification and innuendo. As books have been written about the intimate life of President Kennedy, I have remained quiet. But in today's dangerous climate, I now feel compelled to say something --- because I was there. And, though misunderstood in today's climate or perhaps even earlier, I can assure you, so was Camelot.
As is known, the concept of Camelot was introduced by President Kennedy's traumatized 34-year-old widow, Jacqueline, who was left with two small children, after her husband was assassinated soon after they arrived in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The president had been warned by UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who had been spat upon in Texas for his liberal views, to stay away from this area because of the ugliness he found there. But President Kennedy, at the request of Vice President Johnson, decided to do his best to ease warring political factions in Texas; and his wife accompanied him. Mrs. Kennedy was next to her husband in their open limo, left with a portion of his brain in her hands.
Jacqueline Kennedy was no fool. She surely did not introduce this term to depict a perfect marriage. (All youthful marriages have baggage; either resolved or not as time passes and opportunities to grow as a couple and as individuals either develop or fail.) Both poet and historian, Mrs. Kennedy introduced this term to protect her husband's legacy by depicting the authentic hope of the time, and yes its uplifting idealism, which remain the best that is America. She introduced it to fight the ugliness and madness that tore Texas apart, that led to her husband's death, that divided our country and threatens us all, to this day.
Following his election, hundreds of young people, inspired by the president's goals for our country, came to Washington to find work. Hundreds more joined the Peace Corps, established in March, 1961 to promote world peace and friendship. We were involved in every way possible, unlike so many today who overwhelmed by the tenor and lack of opportunity of the times, are withdrawn and disinterested in all political involvement, even voting.
Though largely invisible and surely not remembered, I was one of these hundreds, most from traditional and conventional families. Being approached in the ways described in Alford's book would have caused us to shriek, run, vomit -- or a combination.
Some personal background that I believe parallels the motivation and experience of most who were there:
A political science major in college, class of 1962 at Goucher College, I studied John Kennedy's speeches and of course read Profiles in Courage. I grew up in a state where Jim Crow laws were followed; African-Americans rode at the back of all buses and streetcars. Further, there were signs in front of certain establishments, and at the entrance of certain neighborhoods, reading "No Jews, Negroes or Dogs."
Senator Kennedy's emphasis on educational opportunities and personal involvement for the greater good seemed a welcome and necessary change from decades that perpetuated prejudice and poverty. Plus, a believer in the separation of Church and State, I was offended that there was enormous prejudice against a Catholic running for president. I was so proud of a major press conference that the future president held in West Virginia in March, 1960 where he spoke in adamant support of the separation of Church and State, stressing that it was economic opportunity that most citizens cared about, and promising that his personal religious views would never be part of his presidential leadership.
I loved that President Kennedy was a thoughtful and educated man, who appreciated the classics and the importance of timely and careful study of the lessons of history. His verbal skills, timing, and spirited sense of humor during press conferences, and in his speeches were a joy. That he was so handsome did not hurt either. Later (fifty years ago) his wife would bring her cultural and artistic genius to a full restoration of the White House, which had become dowdy and devoid of historical content
During my sophomore year in college, I wrote to every Democrat in office in my home state of Maryland, asking to work for the delegation that would go to the Democratic Convention. A great deal of this mail was forwarded to Dr. Mildred Otenasak, our Maryland National Committeewoman, and a strong Kennedy backer. Senator Kennedy won our Maryland primary, which meant that all of our votes went to him, and I was invited to come to Los Angeles as a page for the delegation (I delivered telegrams, mail and coffee). Our delegation was given the first three rows in the center of the convention center. If you look carefully at press photos of that time, you can clearly see all of our backs.
During a state party, Dr. Otenasak introduced me to our future president, using my name at the time, Miss Sherman; and he told me to get in touch with Evelyn Lincohn (his secretary) for job help if he won. A group of us at Goucher College worked tirelessly for our candidate, and I was invited to a pre-election dinner in Baltimore where he gave a tough and well regarded speech, "A Letter to Khrushchev." Senator Kennedy remembered me asking if I had a good time in Los Angeles, saying, "Miss Sherman, do call Evelyn Lincohn if I win." He won, and I called.
In each of the conversations we had, the president was never for one instance inappropriate. He called me "Miss Sherman," asking about courses I enjoyed in college. Listening carefully, he suggested that when I was ready I think about graduate school at Catholic University, something that a young woman from an Orthodox Jewish background like myself would never have thought about on her own. I was a graduate student on full scholarship at Catholic U, with a modest living stipend, when the president was murdered. This education has led to a richly fulfilling professional life. As important, twelve years after President Kennedy's death, when divorce became necessary in my life, it was this education that led to my ability to afford a lawyer, and care for my two young daughters, ages 4 and 7.
The only experience I know, of course, is my own; but I find it frightening that sexual innuendo is being used to diminish and degrade the true intent and impact of the Kennedy years, and the reason that so many bound together, inspired by defined goals of service, opportunity, and reason.
Camelot remains the antithesis to selfish isolation, the perpetuation of ignorance, the death of opportunity, and the use of fear to divide and terrorize. It remains the hope, energy and promise of an extraordinary moment in our history. In my deepest heart, I believe that whatever it takes, this promise will eventually be reached.