GRACE AND POWER

The Private World of the Kennedy White House

By Sally Bedell Smith. Random House. 608 pp. $29.95

Sally Bedell Smith has written the nonfiction beach book of the season. Last year Robert Dallek published a thoughtful, well-crafted 815-page biography of John F. Kennedy that created a media sensation because of one brief passage revealing JFK's liaison with a White House intern. In Grace and Power, you need more than a scorecard to keep track of all of the women, some of them nubile staffers, who hopped into bed with the leader of the free world; you need an adding machine.

Some of the revelations are of the sort that usually provide fodder for lurid gazettes at a supermarket checkout counter. A Georgetown University doctor, we are told, tutored Jackie over the phone on foreplay techniques to improve her sex life with Jack who, for all of his frenetic activity, was a lousy lover. In the months after her husband's hideous death, we are further informed, Jackie asked a Jesuit priest, "Do you think God would separate me from my husband if I killed myself? Wouldn't God understand that I just want to be with him?"

It would be altogether unfair to the author, though, to suggest that she has written a slick cut-and-paste exploitation shocker in the style of a London tabloid. She has conducted 140 interviews, consulted 65 oral histories, explored FBI files and ranged widely in archives from the Bodleian Library at Oxford to the University of Wyoming. She takes pains to sift evidence, sometimes casting doubt on salacious gossip, and she is in firm command of the vast Kennedy scholarship.

In more than one respect, however, the narrative is skewed. There is too much on grace, too little on power. At a critical moment in the history of the country, her chief protagonist is not the president, but the first lady: Jackie's choices of decorator fabrics, "her Cassini-designed dresses in shimmering 'sun colors' of pink, azure, yellow, and green," her riding to hounds. When the author does discuss affairs of state, she is lucid and knowledgeable about foreign policy. Domestic matters, though, do not interest her. In the first 300 pages of the volume, the civil rights movement, which reached a crescendo in these years, gets only two paragraphs.

She is aware of Arthur Schlesinger's sage warning that the Camelot myth is "mischievous," but she does not pay it sufficient heed. At the close of her acknowledgments section, in the very last sentence of the book, she writes, "Perhaps Camelot is too much with me." It is. "The Kennedys and their circle set out ambitiously, almost grandiosely, to create an America in their own image and according to their own tastes," she maintains. "To a remarkable degree they succeeded, leaving behind a more assertive nation, infused with a vision and an aesthetic that found its inspiration in Jeffersonian ideals." They "set America on a higher path."

Given that effusive judgment, it is curious how unattractively both of the Kennedys are often portrayed in these pages. Smith depicts Jackie as spoiled, narcissistic and snotty, an insular young woman (only 31 on becoming first lady) who allowed no woman to become close -- and none to join her staff -- who had not gone to Brearley, Chapin or some other posh school. Jack is seen entertaining guests by reading aloud to them the muck in FBI reports on his appointees; betraying Adlai Stevenson by planting a false story in the press; and slinking through underground tunnels, flashlight in hand, in order to carry off assignations undetected at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel. In one ugly episode, with both his wife and one of his mistresses aboard a cruise, he makes crude advances toward his mistress's sister, then wife of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. Nonetheless, the author insists that the Kennedys and their crowd were "special people."

It does not take much to qualify as more "special" than the rest of us. Jayne Wrightsman, we are assured, "had flair -- an example was the 'y' she added to her first name in high school." (Before then, she had been a plain Jane.) Jackie's addiction to nearly a pack of cigarettes a day is characterized as "a badge of sophistication," adorning her since her days at "Farmington" (Miss Porter's School). Cuba Libres, those vile mixes of rum, Coke and lime juice doled out by impecunious graduate students, are "exotic."

The book may turn some readers into raging Jacobins. On a trip to India, the author reports, Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill traveled with 64 pieces of luggage, and in less than a week Jackie appeared in 20 different outfits. Jackie's close friend Bunny Mellon, who had a trompe l'oeil-style mural of her life painted in a gallery between her Virginia greenhouses, grubbed in the garden in clothes designed by Givenchy. As a birthday present to her husband, Jackie ordered a four-hole golf course with long fairways laid out on their Virginia estate. There is a saving grace, though. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, pontificated the New York Times, handed down "upper-crust habits" to the "common woman."

Grace and Power will be a runaway bestseller, deservedly so. The book is impressively well researched and smartly written. It is rich in character sketches, anecdotes and accounts of events. But it should carry a warning label: "Not for those with a low tolerance for treacle." *

William E. Leuchtenburg, a professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written "In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush."

The president and Mrs. Kennedy at the White House, Jan. 1963