Jackie Kennedy’s Hidden Gift

The year that the new South Africa was created after the fall of apartheid, I attended an international meeting in Switzerland.  There was a lively South African delegation full of song and joy because of their new freedom.

One of the South Africans told me that a woman who was a part of their delegation would be appointed the Minister of Health for the new Mandela government.  That evening at dinner I was seated next to this soon-to-be Health Minister.  She introduced herself and asked me where I was from.  When I said I came from the United States, she smiled and said that she wanted to thank me because the United States was the cause of her impending appointment as Health Minister.

She then explained that she had been raised in a very small impoverished rural village.  No one from the village had ever held any position of note in the outside world and anyone who ever had a position in the village was always a man.

In those apartheid years, she said that for her and many of the other girls, their hero was Jackie Kennedy.  She was the “Queen of the World” — beautiful, intelligent, powerful and the partner of the great new handsome President.

Therefore, it was a great tragedy and most of the villagers mourned when President Kennedy was assassinated.  At the time of the assassination, the village got its first television set, and it was placed where everyone could see it.  The only program on the television was the constant live coverage of the events following the assassination.  The villagers all stood for hours and watched the tragic events unfold.

Periodically, the soon-to-be Health Minister told me that the television showed film clips of the Kennedy’s and their family at work and at play.  One clip showed the family swimming at a beach.  Mrs. Kennedy wore a bathing suit, and what the minister saw was the fact that Mrs. Kennedy, the “Queen-of-the-World,” had bowed legs!  My dinner companion stood up, pulled up her skirt and said, “Look, I have bowed legs, too.”  I was more than surprised!  She then explained that she always felt short, homely and very embarrassed by her bowed legs.  But, she said, at that moment when she saw the bow-legged Queen, she decided that she could be a Queen, too.  It changed her life, she said, and from that day on, she worked harder and harder, with the bow-legged Queen as her inspiration.

And so, she said, this is why I thank you for the United States, because your “Queen” opened the door that I am about to walk through.

And what is the moral of this dramatic story?  There are so many.

One is that all leaders are fallible and flawed, but sometimes their fallibility can inspire.  Remember Franklin Roosevelt, who couldn’t stand and walk on his own?  He inspired the creation of the March of Dimes.

Closer to home, we live in neighborhoods surrounded with fallible, flawed people.  We are each one of those people.  And yet, the power of a strong community grows from including all our neighbors — flaws, fallibilities and all.

And we do this, not because we are tolerant, but because we understand that these flaws and fallibilities are in our minds and not really in our neighbors’. Mrs. Kennedy may have spent her life keeping her bowed legs covered, but in the view of a young South African girl, she was a bow-legged hero — “just like me.”

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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