Jackie and John Kennedy, mother and son. Twenty years ago today, one of the 20th century’s most legendary Americans and perhaps the world’s most iconic woman died. Despite dying just two months shy before qualifying for Social Security benefits, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s associative identification in the public imagination with an era which had ended thirty years earlier had so permanently affixed itself onto her that it eclipsed the perception of her even as a real person. Or, as her second child and only son John Kennedy expressed it when previewing the magazine George which he co-founded: “As a lifelong spectator of the giant puppet show that can turn public people into barely recognizable symbols of themselves, I hope we can provide something more useful.” In front of the home they shared, John Kennedy announces to the world the death of his mother, the morning after she died on May 19, 1993. (AP) There was thus nobody more understanding of that nexus between her public and private personae than he and none more sensitive to her own nuanced self. And thus, there was none more appropriate than he to announce to the world her death on May 19, 1994 in a statement that was, like her, simultaneously vague and specific: “Last night, at around 10:15, my mother passed on. She was surrounded by her friends and family and her books and the people and the things that she loved. And she did it in her own way, and we all feel lucky for that, and now she’s in God’s hands.” The President and Mrs. Kennedy united with their children on their way to the White House together for the first time, February 1961. They were unusually close for a mother and son, understandable given the circumstances of his maturing into an adult without a father. Only the first three years of his life were spent with his father, but another thirty would be spent with Jackie as his only parent. She shared one decade of life with Jack, but three with John. And while his father’s name strongly identified him, his mother’s thinking thoroughly influenced him. She was not the perfect mother which the public insistently imagined her to be. John often remarked that she could be too exacting and at other times, early on, was absent when he felt he needed her, even remote. If anything, that made her
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