Half a century after John Kennedy’s presidency, our unofficial royal family still has a remarkable pull on the country’s collective imagination.
A new book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,” which comes with eight CDs, is already No. 1 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A Diane Sawyer special with daughter Caroline based on those never-before-heard interviews drew 8 million viewers Tuesday night, ABC’s biggest non-sports audience in five years.
The continued power of the Kennedy brand has a lot to do with an unbeatable story line, of course. “Jackie embodied every grand literary theme there is,” says Michael Beschloss, the historian who helped pull together and edit the interviews. “Wealth, fame, accomplishment, political power, tragedy.”
But her endurance as an icon also has a lot to do with the skill and care the family has put into creating and perpetuating that image. Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, used to make movies, after all; the Kennedys produced their own family TV show for a time, and it was Jackie herself who suggested the Camelot analogy to a reporter days after Jack’s death.
So why try to rekindle the Kennedy flame again now? The official reason from Caroline is the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency. Conveniently, however, the Kennedy book and CDs provide a timely counter-narrative to “The Kennedys,” the mildly controversial miniseries that is likely to receive a clutch of Emmys in a couple of days.
Yet the book, the tapes and even the TV special do much more to deconstruct the alabaster picture we all have of Jackie than the soft-focus miniseries did. The series focused perhaps too much on Jack’s dalliances and featured a first lady and president who might have been addicted to Dexedrine, but otherwise it was a beautifully photographed tone poem to Jackie.
The book and tapes, on the other hand, reveal a catty, sometimes caustic, politically curious first lady who had strong views about everyone around her. What’s striking about these interviews is how candid Jackie is, how politically incorrect and how hard she works to camouflage her insecurity and vulnerability.
On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Bobby’s told me of the tapes of these orgies they have and how Martin Luther King made fun of Jack’s funeral. . . . I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that that man is terrible.”
On President Lyndon B. Johnson: “Jack said it to me sometimes. He said, ‘Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon were president?’ ”
On Indira Gandhi: “a prune,” and a “bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman.”
On Adlai Stevenson: “Jack so obviously demanded from a woman — a relationship between a man and a woman where a man would be the leader and a woman be his wife and look up to him as a man,” she said. “With Adlai you could have another relationship where — you know, he’d sort of be sweet and you could talk. . . . I always thought women who were scared of sex loved Adlai.”
So why would Caroline voluntarily present this image of her mother to the world? “This was her mother’s intention,” said Beschloss.
It also helps that the dominant narrative in the book is how adoring and reverent Jackie was toward her husband. “She loved my father and I think she knew that he loved her,” Caroline Kennedy told Sawyer. “I think the marriage became happier and happier.”
In the tapes, Jackie calls her time in the White House “our happiest years.”
Jackie only really gave three significant interviews after Jack’s death. The first was to Theodore White on Nov. 29, 1963, in which she associated JFK’s time in the White House once and forever with a musical on Broadway at the time, “Camelot.” The second set of conversations were with historian William Manchester, who wrote “The Death of a President.” And the third were these conversations with historian and friend Arthur Schlesinger the following March. According to Jackie’s wishes, those tapes were kept under seal by the Kennedy Library until this month.
Jack’s presidency, not his assassination, were the subject, so there is very little mention of her feelings about that day in November. Those remembrances were given to Manchester, and remain sealed for another 50 years.
What’s interesting, though, is how much the tapes show that Jackie actually was a political partner in JFK’s presidency, but always behind the scenes, in an almost clandestine sort of way. She appears to have had an intuitive sense of people and a cultural curiosity that made her a particularly effective ensign with foreign heads of state. The conversations show how Jackie’s influence on his official relationships was invaluable to Jack: The people who fell out of favor with Jackie would have a hard time with the president, and vice versa.
“She was a very important part of the Kennedy administration,” Beschloss said. “I don’t think anyone would have said that before this week.”
But the tapes also reveal that Jackie camouflaged her intellectual curiosity and political astuteness. She talks often about how reluctant she was to embrace the intellectual piece of the first lady’s role, the way Eleanor Roosevelt did.
She says it was “criminal” to ask her husband about Vietnam. She felt that she could help Jack best “by making it always a climate of affection, comfort and detente, ” with the “children in good moods.” She admitted she had an almost Victorian sensibility about such things. And she truly believed that Americans at the time didn’t want their first lady to have too much influence on the president.
The book is a testament, really, to how much the First Relationship has evolved.
Jackie had an acute sensitivity to powder room politics as well.
One of the most shocking episodes she recounts involves Mamie Eisenhower, the exiting first lady, who had resisted bringing Jackie in for a traditional tour of “her house” until the media made an issue of it. Eisenhower had put off the showing until she had only hours left as an occupant, and insisted that Jackie come less than an hour after leaving the hospital, where she’d been recovering from an unscheduled C-section after giving birth to John.
“And then they said they’d have a wheelchair . . . and there was never any wheelchair and you were just dragged around every floor, and not even asked to sit down. . . . I couldn’t stop crying for about two days.”
On the tapes, Jackie says, “You know, there was this sort of venom or something there.”
The top-to-bottom restoration of the White House that she launched soon after may have been a way for her to say: This is my house now. But that keen Kennedy sense of image also probably came into play. She knew what a powerful symbol the White House could and should be in the iconography of the country. She described the White House as the setting in which the presidency is presented to the world.
Caroline believes that Jackie’s restoration of the White House was a kind of statement that America had arrived, that it had come of age. Jackie restored furniture, paintings and artifacts from the presidencies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. She recast the White House Library to showcase classic works of American history and literature, Caroline notes. And then more than 80 million people tuned in to watch her give a televised tour.
She talks about how proud Jack was of the restoration, and her, and after that she felt herself no longer an effete, French-speaking liability, but a political asset. And the world came to feel the same.
The restoration may be emblematic of Jackie’s best and greatest legacy, much more lasting than her sense of style, her pillbox hats and her breathy adoration of her beau. Her understanding of culture — and the power of culture — may have left the country something larger. Jack and Jackie both loved reading about great civilizations, she says at one point in the tapes. She believed that the cultural power of civilizations was more important than political power or military power in the lasting influence of those civilizations.
In her 20s, she was once asked what her ideal job might be.
“Art Director of the 20th century,” she said.
She just may have gotten her wish.
Vince Bzdek is the author of “The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled.”