VIEWPOINT;THE MYSTIQUE CONTINUES ...

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With two new books about Jack and Jackie Kennedy coming out (on the heels of that giddily successful auction of Jackie memorabilia and just plain junk), a president long dead and his late wife continue to pluck at the American sleeve and to rattle elegantly about the attic of our consciousness.

All this in the midst of another presidential election campaign when the focus ought to be on President Clinton and Mr. Dole.

The first book, by Christopher Anderson, is "Jack and Jackie, Portrait of an American Marriage," from William Morrow. It's a tell-all job full of spicy love affairs and adulteries, not only on his part but on hers. From snippets I've read, not a very attractive picture.

The second book is Ed Klein's "All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy," from Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. Klein is the former editor of the Sunday magazine of The New York Times and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. I had a chance to talk recently with Ed and he tells me that, yes, he actually knew and spoke often with Jackie, though he would not consider them friends. His publishers are keeping a lid on the book, requiring reporters to sign a confidentiality agreement barring coverage until Aug. 9. Vanity Fair and Parade will be excerpting.

It is the Klein book people are now waiting for.

The other day during our weekly midday chat over at CNBC, anchorman Neil Cavuto and I were discussing both books and the Kennedy mystique and he asked what it was that brings us back again and again to the Kennedys.

Well, as far as book publishers are concerned, I said, "They smell money." Beyond that, and the obvious drama of Kennedy's assassination and the family's wealth and glamor, I confessed to being not terribly good at ascribing motivation. But I've been thinking about it since, what I should have told Mr. Cavuto, who is about half my age and could not possibly remember the Kennedy I knew.

Can you imagine what it was like in 1960 when JFK ran?

Eisenhower was president, a famous general and father figure. He'd succeeded Truman, taciturn, plain, midwestern, a failed haberdasher who happened to become a great president. Before him there was FDR, president for 13 years, elected four times. Before Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and Coolidge and Harding. All of them gray, middle-aged, (and except for FDR) middle-American men.

Along came Kennedy, this dashing young fellow with looks and money, with Harvard and a heroic war behind him, a cad for a father and a saint for a mother, and married to a woman made for magazine covers, with cute kids to match. They were at home in Palm Beach and Georgetown, in Boston or sailing on the Cape. In Manhattan they had a suite at the Carlyle and a table at the Stork.

They were Scott and Zelda without the gin.

The last time I ever saw him he was the president and visiting France on a state visit. The French went nuts. Hello, Jack said, opening a press conference, I'm the man who came to Paris with Jackie. She, in her good French, both shocked and delighted Parisians by saying of her husband, the president, "C'est un bon type...he's a good guy."

Was he a great president? No, far better at crafting a dream than real accomplishment. Was it just smoke and mirrors? No, maybe he just didn't have enough time. Oswald stole that. Was Jack the rascal old Joe was? Not quite. Was Jackie another Mother Rose? You jest. But they were young and beautiful and bright and if you were of my generation, they seemed to beckon us toward some admittedly vague but thrilling tomorrow. And they had style. God, they had style...

But we can still ask, as Peggy Lee sang, "Is that all there is, my friends?"

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