Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Introducing Caroline Kennedy

This evening (Tuesday, September 27, 2011), I introduced Caroline Kennedy to the audience at her only West-Coast appearance regarding about her publication of her mother's interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, conducted only weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since these remarks relate the  publication of these interviews to biography, I post them here (as written).
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The daughter of President and Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline has been in the public eye since birth. I hardly need say that tragedy has haunted her family, yet she has risen above it, turning her career toward public service. A Harvard and Columbia-educated lawyer, she has been a leader as an advocate in education. She has most recently been active in the cause of public education in New York, among the many other causes she has taken up.

Of course, we are here tonight to hear her speak not of herself, but of her mother. Perhaps, then, I should say a few words to offer my perspective, as a biographer.

Back in ‘02, I was on a panel with the great biographer Brenda Maddox, she was asked a question that biographers consistently get: Did you fall in love with your subject, or come to hate her? There’s a common assumption that the biographer will inevitably take one of two extreme positions, either of celebration or prosecution. Ms. Maddox replied that she had once written an essay on this very question, titled, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
           
One of the highest goals of a life study is to grasp the subject’s irreducible humanity. I believe it was Tolstoy who said that all men are both good and bad; his fictional characters seem so vividly real because they are not types, but recognizable and real—at times contradictory, unaware of themselves, impulsive and compulsive as well as deliberate and purposeful. The biographer, unlike the novelist, is limited to the evidence that floats to the surface of a life. Yet the task must be the same as Tolstoy’s: To capture a three-dimensional human being in all of his or her complexity.

But can we reasonably expect that approach from a daughter? For Caroline Kennedy, I would guess that love has everything to do with it—and love inclines toward celebration. Why not celebrate Jacqueline Kennedy—a woman who did so much good in the world, who is so widely admired?
           
And yet, here we are: By publishing these conversations between Jacqueline Kennedy and the great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Caroline Kennedy has given us her mother unredacted. We hear her mother’s authentic voice, speaking wisdom, shrewd insight, aggravation, and attitudes that will, at times, seem decidedly backward in today’s world. Caroline’s love is great enough to encompass her mother’s entire humanity—to publicly encompass it, before the eyes of all of us. She writes in her introduction that she overcame her urge to edit, concluding that she could trust us, her audience, to see these conversations in context, to accept her mother’s complexity. She recognizes that revealing her mother, unfiltered, only enhances our admiration for Jacqueline Kennedy, for it was not a superwoman who lived through such great and tragic events, but a person, as vulnerable as any of us, yet capable of surviving, growing, and triumphing.
           
Of course, the ultimate purpose of these conversations was to reveal the career of President Kennedy from the inside. It’s a tricky thing, I think, for a daughter to handle her mother’s unmediated remarks on her father’s life. Here were two people, more intimately intertwined with each other than with anyone else, one privately interpreting the other, never thinking that the world would hear her words. Here we see President Kennedy in all of his complexity—driven, ambitious, stricken by pain, shrewd, idealistic, member a large and ambitious family. After all that has been written about the President, after the hatred and glorification and just plain nonsense, Caroline Kennedy trusts us with her mother’s deeply personal view of him.
           
Ms. Kennedy, thank you for this brave, wise, and generous act. With this work, you’ve shown that revealing, rather than covering up, is the true gift of love, and we are grateful.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A beautiful expression of gratitude and that is exactly how I feel towards Caroline, now. Mrs. Kennedy has always been my feminine ideal, even more so, since hearing her tapes.

I just hope Caroline allows others close to her mother to leave their memoirs withe us as well. That is how we get a more complete view of Mrs. Kennedy-Onassis. There were/are many bks written, but writers had lots of problems finding people close to Jackie who would share their experiences with the public. There was a lot of fear of censorship and the perception of a powerful family who might penalize those who spoke out.