Judging Jackie Kennedy

Barbara Perry’s new book examines the enigma of a fascinating first lady.

By Thames Schoenvogel

Photo by Jack Mellott.

When her mother took 4-year-old Barbara Perry (PhD, Government ’86) to a John F. Kennedy rally, she had no idea that the childhood experience would make such an impression on her daughter. For Perry, the 1960 rally was the start of a lifelong Kennedy fascination that culminated with her recently published book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier.”

Perry had always hoped to research the Kennedy administration in some capacity when she discovered that the University Press of Kansas was publishing a Modern First Ladies Series. Writing the book was a “u-turn” for her, but one she could not pass up once her proposal was accepted. “I hadn’t thought I would be writing about the Kennedys … it was a dream,” she said.

Although Perry’s interest in the Kennedy family is longstanding, she has spent her career studying subjects related to government and constitutional law. Currently the Carter Glass Professor of Government at Sweet Briar College, Perry also directs the school’s Center for Civic Renewal, which aims to educate young people and encourage their interest in government. She is a past judicial fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court and is the author of previous books including “The Priestly Tribe: The Supreme Court’s Image in the American Mind” and the co-author of “Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States.”

This book, billed as “the first scholarly treatment of her work as first lady,” avoids the sensationalism of the Kennedy story and instead focuses on what Jackie Kennedy accomplished during her tenure in the White House. Jackie was passionate about restoring the White House and instilling a national sense of pride in the president’s home. She recovered the antiques of past presidents, encouraged the collection of great art and helped to found the White House Historical Association. The Kennedys also promoted the performing arts through a variety of White House-sponsored events that Jackie meticulously planned. Jackie was instrumental in bringing the Mona Lisa to the National Gallery of Art in 1963, and she saved the historical buildings surrounding Lafayette Park, just north of the White House, from destruction.

Perry also discusses where Jackie fits within the “supportive spouse/model wife” and “modern spouse/public presidential partner” categories. Although most first ladies are easily identifiable with one group, Jackie is more difficult to place. “She was strong-willed and knew her opinions, but I also think she played the good political wife,” said Perry. “It is part of the puzzle that I don’t think I could solve.”

In fact, Jackie remains an enigma not only to the public but also to scholars like Perry. “Having spent four years studying her, I still don’t feel as though I know her,” Perry explained. “Yet I think that is the way she would have wanted it.”

In addition to her teaching and other responsibilities at Sweet Briar, Perry is pursuing several upcoming projects. She and a colleague are writing a lecture on Jefferson and the Supreme Court to be given in the court through the Supreme Court Historical Society. She also plans to write her next book on the University of Michigan affirmative action case.

If the opportunity arises, however, Perry would work on another Kennedy-related project “in a heartbeat.”

She added, “I know I will look back on this as the most wonderful academic experience in the research and writing areas that I have ever had.”

Perry will speak on her book at a Miller Center Forum at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, December 14. For information, call 434-924-7236.

Barbara Perry ('86)