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Joe knew that pictures were at least as important as words. One reason the Kennedy legacy is so durable is that much of it is pictorial--perfectly suited to the postliterate age. As a part-time Hollywood producer, Joe hired some of the world's finest photographers and technicians to capture his children on film. The stills and motion pictures--of sailing excursions off Cape Cod, touch-football games on windswept lawns--were inventoried, scene by scene, and warehoused against the day when they would prove useful.
Before J.F.K. ran for President, in 1960, Joe was quoted as saying "We'll sell Jack like soap flakes." But the Kennedy brand was meant to carry a touch of class. Crucial to the making of the myth and to its perpetuation was the careful selection of what the historian Garry Wills has sardonically called "Honorary Kennedys." The Kennedys had looks and wealth; the Honoraries provided class and an intellectual reputation that set the Kennedys apart from other American dynasties like the Fords or the Rockefellers. To the set of house intellectuals provided by Joe, Jack added many journalists of his choosing, as well as academics and cutting-edge businessmen.
It was the job of the Honoraries to interpret the Kennedys to the world. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for example, abandoned a career producing serious, much admired histories in favor of massive, beautifully written court biographies of Jack and Robert, both published after their deaths. His services are still required by the family today. When the Met published its $50 coffee-table book as a companion to The White House Years, Schlesinger, 83, composed an essay.
Over the years, the Honoraries' mission changed from the creation of an image to its preservation. In a project underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation, veterans of the Kennedy Administration compiled a set of oral histories shortly after the President's assassination. Honoraries interviewed other Honoraries about the President they had served. For many years these interviews formed the core of the holdings available to researchers at the Kennedy Library, serving as a rose-colored resource for anyone willing to write history as the family wanted it told.
Former New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb recalls how, in the first years after the assassination, the Kennedy courtiers publicly stressed the President's resolve to fight the communists in Vietnam. "The books by Schlesinger and [Ted] Sorensen and the others," Gelb says, "all cited his interviews, right before the assassination, in which he said it was vitally important that we stay the course in Vietnam." By the late 1960s, however, the war had begun to look like a gross miscalculation--a threat to the Kennedy legacy. "They began to change what they were saying about Kennedy and Vietnam," Gelb recalls. A 1970 article in LIFE magazine, by Jack's assistant Kenneth O'Donnell, recounted a previously unknown story in which Jack privately told advisers that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam after the 1964 election. "I was struck by it because this was so at odds with what we had been hearing from Kennedy people before," Gelb says. "They were changing their mind and trying to bring President Kennedy with them."