How Jackie Kennedy invented the Camelot myth

In that interview Mrs. Kennedy pressed upon White the Camelot image that would prove so influential in shaping the public memory of JFK and his administration. President Kennedy, she told the journalist, was especially fond of the music from the popular Broadway musical, Camelot, the lyrics of which were the work of Alan Jay Lerner, JFK’s classmate at Harvard. The musical, which featured Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot, had a successful run on Broadway from 1960 to 1963. According to Mrs. Kennedy, the couple enjoyed listening to a recording of the title song before going to bed at night. JFK was especially fond of the concluding couplet: “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.” President Kennedy, she said, was strongly attracted to the Camelot legend because he was an idealist who saw history as something made by heroes like King Arthur (a claim White knew to be untrue). “There will be great presidents again,” she told White, “but there will never be another Camelot.” In this way, and to her credit, Mrs. Kennedy sought to attach a morally uplifting message to one of the more ugly events in American history.

Following the interview, White retreated to a guest room in the Kennedy mansion to review his notes and compose a draft of the essay. His editors were at this hour (late on a Saturday evening) holding the presses open at great expense while waiting to receive his copy over the telephone. When White later phoned his editors to dictate his text (with Mrs. Kennedy standing nearby), he was surprised by their reaction for they initially rejected the Camelot references as sentimental and inappropriate to the occasion. Mrs. Kennedy, interpreting the gist of the exchange, signaled to White that Camelot must be kept in the text. The editors quickly relented. White later wrote that he regretted the role he played in transmitting the Camelot myth to the public…

But the Camelot image as applied to the Kennedy presidency had some unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. By turning President Kennedy into a liberal idealist (which he was not) and a near legendary figure, Mrs. Kennedy inadvertently contributed to the unwinding of the tradition of American liberalism that her husband represented in life. The images she advanced had a double effect: first, to establish Kennedy as a transcendent political figure far superior to any contemporary rival; and, second, to highlight what the nation had lost when he was killed. The two elements were mirror images of one another. The Camelot myth magnified the sense of loss felt as a consequence of Kennedy’s death and the dashing of liberal hopes and possibilities. If one accepted the image (and many did, despite their better judgment), then the best of times were now in the past and could not be recovered. Life would go on but the future could never match the magical chapter that had been brought to an unnatural end. As Mrs. Kennedy said, “there will never be another Camelot.”