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If all the world's a stage, as William Shakespeare suggested, only a few people have played their parts on a stage so grand as the White House, let alone cast themselves in the lead roles, written their own scripts, and directed their own performance. Yet this was the case with President John F. Kennedy and his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, after they came to the White House in January 1961. Despite the barbs of latter-day critics, their nearly three-year run scored positive reviews at the time, set the benchmark against which subsequent performances would be measured, and still resonates in the popular imagination today. Indeed, it would become central to the approved story of the president's life, as later framed by his wife and family, and would be embedded forever in the many monuments to his memory, from his state funeral, to his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, to his presidential library and museum in Boston. When we remember John F. Kennedy, in other words, we are likely to remember the performer, as much as the person, and not only the part he played as president in his own White House productions but also the part his wife and others reproduced in the years following his death.
Comparing the Kennedys to stage performers or Hollywood stars is hardly a novel analogy, but the parallel has not been explored with an eye to its political content or to the way we remember the slain president. As they drafted the script for their productions, however, and as they directed the staging and played their parts, the Kennedys were also embellishing the office of the president, the authority of its occupant, and the prestige of the United States around the world. They were performing not just the presidency but the nation, defining not only the identities of the characters they played but that of the country as well. In these and other ways, their presentation of the presidency went beyond entertainment, or mere “style,” as some historians have described it. They created what marketers would call a “brand,” basically a positive representation of themselves and their country, and in the process, transformed performance into power, style into substance for an audience that seemed hungry for what their production had to say, not only about the president but also about themselves as Americans.