Leading Article: The unforgettable lightness of fame

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The Independent Online
JACQUELINE ONASSIS, who is to be buried today at Arlington National Cemetery, near the eternal flame marking the grave of her first husband, President John F Kennedy, is one of the very few First Ladies whose life and death have deeply touched the American nation and the world at large. At first it is hard to see the nature of her importance; she was famous, of course, as the consort of an assassinated American president, but then so was Mary Lincoln, in whom history has not taken any great interest.

First Ladies have, in the main, fallen into three categories: companions (Martha Washington, Mamie Eisenhower), partners (Edith Wilson, Nancy Reagan) and doers (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton). Jackie (as she was universally known) was in the much rarer tradition of Dolly Madison, who, as the wife of the fourth President, James Madison, is still known to Americans as the first woman to make the White House a social, as well as a political, centre. It may be an ironic comment on the nature of public life that the seemingly serious arts of diplomacy, legislation and administration count for less in the public imagination than patronage of the arts and the incarnation of stylishness. The Prince of Wales has had reason to muse on this seeming frivolity of the public mind, but President Kennedy had the good sense to value Jackie's contribution to the mystique of his presidency.

It may be that the public is right: that style in public (and private) life is more than a frivolous add-on; that, like art, on occasion it can transcend entertainment and encapsulate enduring values. When Jackie appeared to besmirch the memory of John Kennedy by marrying a Greek shipping tycoon, she momentarily betrayed the impeccable taste that had made her every gesture a flawless model for public emulation.

But the American people gradually forgot their anger at Jackie for her second marriage and they came to admire the integrity that underlaid what they called her elegance. For most of her life, she had shunned the tinsel temptations of publicity, protected her children from the ravages of fame, and had kept her, and in a sense their, dignity through the tragic vicissitudes of an inescapably public life.