Jackie Kennedy Tapes Offer View On An Era, And Icon
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Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 1:00 PM
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Just months after President John F. Kennedy's death, his wife sat down with historian Arthur Schlesinger to share her experience as first lady. The newly released recordings reveal Jacqueline Kennedy's views on a number of prominent leaders and issues of the day.

In March 1964, just four months after the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with her friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger, to record a series of interviews about her experiences as first lady.

Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, the tapes, along with CDs of the interviews, have been released as a book.

The recordings include Kennedy's candid impressions about Lyndon Johnson, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Cuban missile crisis.

"I think they add texture, they add depth" to the public's perceptions of Jackie Kennedy, historian Sally Bedell Smith tells NPR's Neal Conan.

A cultural icon often remembered for her glamour and beauty, Kennedy "was often underestimated," says Smith, author of Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House. "She was a far more intelligent, original, creative person than many people gave her credit for."

Kennedy's devotion to her husband comes through starkly in the recordings, Smith says. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when many administration officials were sending their wives and children away from Washington out of fear of a potential nuclear attack, Kennedy insisted that she would stay at the White House with the president.

Please don't send me away to Camp David ... Please don't send me anywhere. If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you ... even if there's not room in the bomb shelter in the White House ... I just want to be with you and I want to die with you.

"Jackie performed a very valuable function that week," Smith says. "She kept an air of normalcy, believe it or not, at least upstairs in the White House." Kennedy's word choice and emphatic tone, Smith says, "showed the level of her devotion ... She really, really loved him."

The tapes also provide some insight into the lackluster support within the Kennedy White House for then-Vice President Johnson. In her conversation with Schlesinger, Jackie Kennedy refutes rumors that her husband was considering dropping Johnson as vice president in his planned re-election bid. But she also said there were widespread doubts within the Kennedy family about Johnson's suitability for the role.

Bobby told me this later, and I know Jack said it to me sometimes, he said, 'Oh god, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?' ... I mean, he didn't like that idea that Lyndon would go on to be president because he was worried for the country.

"There were a lot of people in the Kennedy White House who treated Johnson badly, disparaged him," including one of Kennedy's top aides, Kenneth O'Donnell, Smith says. "Johnson later said that Jackie was the only person in the Kennedy family who was really kind to him."

One of the most talked-about aspects of the recordings are Kennedy's comments about civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his reported sexual exploits.

[John F. Kennedy] told me of a tape that the FBI had of Martin Luther King when he was here for the freedom march. And he said this with no bitterness or anything, how he was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women ... And I said, 'But Jack, oh that's so terrible, I mean, that man, you know, is such a phony then.'

The irony of that statement, says Smith, is that Kennedy was aware that her husband had had his own extramarital affairs.

"It was Schlesinger himself who told me that they had a sort of mutual forbearance in their marriage. She knew what he was up to, and she didn't make a big deal out of it ... she had an almost European view about that sort of thing," Smith says.

Some who have heard the tapes have commented on how they seem to reveal a lack of confidence and an insecurity in the first lady. Smith says it's important to listen to Kennedy's remarks in context.

"She was still riven with grief" over the assassination of her husband, Smith says. "She was always a confident person. She knew when she went into the White House ... what she wanted to do.

"The fact is that she was really JFK's eyes and ears ... She was not a terribly visible presence in the political sense," says Smith. "But ... she was extremely good at reading people and their motivations, and figuring out who was, sort of, for her husband and who was against him." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]


Audio Transcript:

NEAL CONAN, host: Just four months after the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with her friend, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, to record a series of interviews about her life in the White House. Now, 50 years after John Kennedy's presidency, transcripts of those tapes have been released. There's a new book, along with CDs of the interviews themselves, which include candid thoughts about Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, the Cuban missile crisis and Jack Kennedy's reaction to Jackie's famous renovation of the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS: I was so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together, that he could be proud of me then, because, you know, it made him so happy. It made me so happy. So those were our happiest years.

CONAN: How do these tapes change your view of Jacqueline Kennedy? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sally Bedell Smith is an historian and author of "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House," and she joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to come in.

SALLY BEDELL SMITH: Thank you, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder what you've learned from these interviews.

SMITH: Well, I haven't heard the tapes yet, so I'm really looking forward to listening to them today, to the, you know, the snippets that we'll hear. But from what I've read, they sort of reinforce my view that I developed in the course of researching my book. And I think they add texture. They add depth. And probably for many people who have - had a kind of stereotypical view of Jackie, based on that little breathy voice we just heard, she was a far more intelligent, original, creative person than many people gave her credit for. She was often underestimated. And I think it's wonderful that these tapes have been revealed, because I think they really show all this, vividly.

CONAN: Well, let's listen to some excerpts now. And, again, these are just tiny excerpts. These are long interviews. But this is perhaps the most dramatic moment of John Kennedy's presidency: the Cuban missile crisis.

SMITH: Right.

CONAN: Jacqueline Kennedy heard that some in the administration were sending their wives and children away to safer areas and - in case of an attack. And the first lady told her husband, whatever happened, she wanted to stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

ONASSIS: Please don't send me away to Camp David, you know, me and the children. Please don't send me anywhere. If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you. And, you know - and I said, even if there's no room in the bomb shelter in the White House, which I've seen, I said, please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens. You know? But I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you - and the children do, too - than live without you. So he said - he wouldn't send me away. And he didn't really want to send me away, either.

CONAN: Wanted to keep his family and his wife there in this incredibly tense moment.

SMITH: Right. That doesn't really surprise me. Jackie performed a very valuable function that week. She kind of kept a - she kept an air of normalcy, believe it or not, at least upstairs in the White House. They had dinner parties. They had people in. And, eventually, toward the end of the week, she actually did go out to Middleburg, because she wanted to ride her horses, but things were beginning to look brighter at that point. But I think that tone of voice and the words that she chose showed the level of her devotion, which, I gather, is also evident in a lot of other excerpts from the tape. She really, really loved him.

CONAN: Let's play - talk about incisive. This is Arthur Schlesinger, recalls the story that had been reported to the effect that there was some consideration that Jack Kennedy might drop Lyndon Johnson as his vice president when he ran for re-election for a second term in 1964. Jackie refuted that claim, but said there were a lot of doubts in the Kennedy family and indeed the president's mind about his vice president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

ONASSIS: Bobby told me this later, and I know Jack said it to me sometimes. He said, Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president? So many times he'd say if there was ever a problem. And then stories would come out about '64, but I don't see how you could drop him in '64.

ARTHUR SCHLESINGER: Very hard.

ONASSIS: But in '68, I know he was thinking, you know, in some little way, what could you do? Well, first place, I thought Lyndon would be too old then to run for president. But I said, you know, and he said, well, maybe - I mean, he didn't like that idea that Lyndon would go on and be president because he was worried for the country. And Bobby told me that he had some discussions with him. I forget exactly how they were planning or who they had in mind. It wasn't Bobby, you know, somebody. Do something to name someone else in '68.

SCHLESINGER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: A clip that is replete with irony.

SMITH: It certainly is. And, of course, Bobby and Johnson, you know, had a very difficult relationship. And there were a lot of people in the Kennedy White House who were, you know, who really treated Johnson badly, disparaged him - Kenny O'Donnell did, one of Kennedy's top aides. Johnson later said that Jackie was the only person in the Kennedy family who was really kind to him.

CONAN: Interesting, because she tells the story - we don't have this particular clip - at another point, where LBJ goes up to Hyannis, to the family compound, and sits in, as she always called it, Mr. Kennedy's chair. Mr. Kennedy, of course, being John's father, Joe Kennedy. And she was saying, how dare you? Do you know whose chair that is? And, again - and given what she said, Lyndon Johnson, things that he had said about Joe Kennedy.

SMITH: Right. And also, she paid great deference to Joe Kennedy on the one hand, but he - but she was also - she also was capable. She was confident enough that she could mock him. But, you know, that was probably more a function of her view of Joe Kennedy and how he ruled that particular roost.

CONAN: We're talking with historian Sally Bedell Smith, author of "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House," about the newly released Jackie Kennedy tapes. If you had a chance to hear or read about them, give us a call. How do they change your view of our former first lady? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And one of the things that people are talking about is some comments that Jackie Kennedy made about Martin Luther King, Jr. Jackie recalled that her husband always had nice things to say about him, but what she heard was not always so positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

ONASSIS: Well, he said what an incredible speaker he was during that freedom march thing and you know when he acknowledged that having made that call during the campaign got them. Then he told me of a tape that the FBI had of Martin Luther King when he was here for the freedom march, and he said this with no bitterness or anything, how he was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women, I mean sort of an orgy in a hotel and everything.

SCHLESINGER: Martin Luther King?

ONASSIS: Oh yeah. At first he said, oh, you know. And I said, oh, but Jack, that's so terrible. I mean, that man is, you know, such a phony man.

CONAN: Well, again...

SMITH: Well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...replete with irony and hints of tragedy. Martin Luther King, of course, himself would be assassinated a few years later. But..

SMITH: Absolutely. But I think the historical context of this is that in the fall of 1963, Bobby Kennedy authorized the wiretaps that picked up these conversations and these - all the evidence of his - of Martin Luther King's sexual peccadilloes, which clearly Jack must have shared with his - with Jackie.

CONAN: And indeed, there is, some say, a bit of hypocrisy in saying that since she had to know that her husband was not above that himself.

SMITH: Well, she certainly did and she knew it really going into the marriage, had a long talk with one of his oldest friends, Lem Billings. And she - her eyes were wide open. And yet she loved him, and she did everything she could to be an effective first lady. And it was Schlesinger himself who told me that they had a sort of mutual forbearance in their marriage. She knew what he was up to, and she didn't make a big deal out of it.

She had - she was very well read, particularly about the 18th and 19th century, particularly France. And she had a kind of almost European view of that sort of thing. She'd read about all sorts of famous courtesans and mistresses. And one of her favorite objects was Madame de Pompadour as a sphinx that sat on her desk, and she sort of related to that. She thought of herself a bit of a sphinx and tried to cultivate an air of mystery.

CONAN: There's another point in which she said, interestingly, that she was never considered a political asset, that she was dismissed as, you know, an effete French speaker who - and then was pregnant and could not participate in the campaign and that...

SMITH: Happily.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But that opinion changed after she got to the White House and particularly after she remodeled, and of course, one of the most popular television programs in history, "A Tour of the White House" and what she had done with it.

SMITH: Right. And she had very definite ideas about what she wanted to do and she, you know, she not only filled the White House with authentic antiques and renovated it, she led through a whole sort of historic preservation movement. But she - when she was a young woman, I read a letter where she said she envisioned herself as an art director in the sky, kind of giving directions to all sorts of people. And that's sort of what she was in the White House.

And I talked to the producer of the CBS show "The Tour of the White House," and Jack was watching her at the very end of the taping, and it was Perry Wolff, and he said, you know, I looked at the expression between them and I saw such a connection. I saw so much pride in his eyes for what she'd done, because if you look at that show, it was very erudite. She memorized the whole thing. She really knew her stuff.

And not only that, but she created this atmosphere of very, sort of high culture. She had a dinner for Andre Malraux. She had a dinner for the Nobel laureates. Andre Malraux, the cultural minister of France, was sort of - her social secretary, Tish Baldridge, said that she had an intellectual crush on him. He was her intellectual mentor. So she operated at a very high level, and I think people - women all over the world admired her for that.

CONAN: We're talking with Sally Bedell Smith about the Jackie Kennedy tapes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller in on the conversation. John(ph) is calling us from Maui in Hawaii.

JOHN: Good morning.

CONAN: Good morning.

JOHN: Ms. Smith, (unintelligible) share the same last name as you.

SMITH: Oh, nice.

JOHN: I remember after the assassination and after the dust fell, and Jackie took off with Aristotle Onassis, there was all this talk about that she was already seeing him and so forth. And my point is that this tape tends to sort of refute that scenario if, in fact, you believe the tape is credible.

SMITH: Well, I know this much. When she was alleged to have had a relationship with Aristotle Onassis during her marriage was in the fall of 1963 when she and her sister went on a cruise with him. I find everything about those allegations to be completely untrue. She had just lost her baby. She had had a caesarian section. She was deeply melancholic. She needed to get away. She took two of her friends, Sue Roosevelt and her husband, along with them, and it just flies in the face of all of the evidence.

Now, yes, she did take up with Onassis later, but it was several years later. It was after Bobby Kennedy was shot, and she felt very, very vulnerable. Onassis was a bit of a pirate. He was - but he was - he had a sort of warmth, and she loved Greece and she loved the Greek myths, and I think she just wanted to get away.

JOHN: And, therefore, she could've fall in love with an old friend, therefore.

SMITH: Well, he wasn't - he was, at the time that she went on the cruise in the fall of 1963, he was having an affair with her sister.

Oh.

So she was there as sort of cover for...

CONAN: A beard is

SMITH: She was there as a beard, and the Roosevelts were there as even further protective cover.

JOHN: Well quickly, I'd like to say I'm really - I appreciate your take on this because I've always admired her. And as a young boy, I always that she was the first woman that I really thought: wow.

SMITH: Well, you had good reasons to think well.

CONAN: And I don't think you were alone, John.

JOHN: Thanks. I think not.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Interestingly, another reason the tapes might be credible, she had every reason to believe they would be kept secret.

SMITH: Yes.

CONAN: And this is only Caroline Kennedy, 50 years after her father's presidency on this occasion, releasing them. There is another set of interviews that she gave to William Manchester.

SMITH: Right.

CONAN: Those will be secret for another 50 years.

SMITH: Right. I believe that's the case. I saw all of William Manchester's papers. I was the first person to see them when I was writing my book. And the only thing that was absent were those...

CONAN: Darn it.

SMITH: Darn it. I thought maybe they'd make a mistake and include it, but they didn't.

CONAN: These are the memories of the assassination itself.

SMITH: Particularly the memories of the assassination. And he did use quite a bit or material from those tapes, but they were not. I'm sure they were extremely painful and perhaps even graphic.

CONAN: Let's go next to Renee(ph), and Renee is with us from Sioux Falls.

RENEE: Hi. Yeah. I was really surprised. You know, I watched, you know, the ABC special the other night and was really surprised because I always really do see her as someone extremely empowered and charmed. And in listening to the tapes, I saw her weak side, I guess, you know, and saw, like, immaturity and insecurity, which I guess you could attribute to her, you know, the time in her life. But I was really surprised by that because I'd only, you know, known about her through her later years and stuff. And there were so many things that she said that just shocked me, even thought her insight into people I thought was so good.

SMITH: She did have excellent insight into people even back when she was a teenager. But I think you have to put her remarks in the context of how she was feeling. She was still absolutely ridden with grief. And the fact is that she was really JFK's eyes and ears, she was not a passive presence in the White House. She was not a terribly visible presence in the political sense, but she applied what - I think it was Kenneth Galbraith called her astringent analysis.

And she was extremely good at reading people and their motivations and figuring out sort of who was for her husband and who was against him. And she, you know, she really performed a great - she was a diplomat. You know, she went to India, and Kenneth Galbraith, who was the ambassador there, said she did a lot to smooth relations between India and the United States. And so she perhaps sounded as if she lacked confidence in those interviews, but I think she was always a very confident person. She knew when she went into the White House exactly what she wanted to do.

CONAN: Renee, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

RENEE: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: And, Sally Bedell Smith, thank you for your time today.

SMITH: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Sally Bedell's book is "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House." That's not her only book, but that's the relevant book, and she was kind enough to join us here today in Studio 3A.

On Monday in this hour, Hal Holbrook will join us to talk about his autobiography, "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." We hope you'll join us for that conversation.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.



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