Contrary to the conventional wisdom taken by the majority of last week’s broadcast, print and online media coverage of “The Jackie Tapes,” more is, in fact, revealed about First Lady Jackie Kennedy than is about the subject of the oral history interviews, her late husband President John F. Kennedy.
Those who’ve closely studied the Kennedy Presidency will already know many characterizations, stories and ideas heard on “The Jackie Tapes,” that form the just-released CDs-and-book Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. A vast amount of the material was heavily used in A Thousand Days (1965), the Pulitzer-prize winning history of the JFK Administration written by historian Arthur Schlesinger, who also conducted the interviews. It all began with his January 6, 1964 letter to her, describing his intention to write, “a rather personal book about the President, how he operated, a portrait of the man at work, showing him in certain crises and turning-points of the administration…”
She agreed with both his book idea and granting oral history interviews. In turn, it seems, Schlesinger invited her suggestions on his manuscript, now open in his papers at the JFK Library. Ten years before she would work as a professional editor, Jackie’s blue pencil lingered over the historian’s words, her comments suggesting her concern for what each might imply. The trusted friends had no contract stipulating how they’d help each other towards the same objective, of shaping an official narrative of the Administration. Jackie Kennedy similarly sanctioned William Manchester‘s assassination narrative, The Death of the President, also granting him taped interviews, which remain closed. In neither case did she get advance or royalty payment for her work.
My research and writing about Jacqueline Kennedy, specifically, and First Ladies, generally, has been to detect, discover, discern, and distill the forms of their personal power, public influence and political impact, not solely define them by the interesting but often diminishing parameter by which they’d long been characterized. “The Jackie Tapes” provide the ideal venue for best grasping her subtle, subversive intelligence which even her artful correspondence fails to fully do.
While JFK is the focus throughout the taped interviews, the transposition that more precisely if unwittingly reveals Jackie in first-person comes only by listening to the entire seven and a half hours of tapes. Listening to the tapes makes it clear that the media’s out-of-context snippets and posthumous rebukes of her are unjustified and offer a more accurate, enlarged understanding than transcripts can. In print, for example, her remark that JFK sometimes adapted Chinese proverbs for his own speeches and that they’d have to check the quotes of Mao Tse-Tung as the possible source for his remark that “victory has many fathers but failure is an orphan” might provoke the literal reader to believe he had some sort of secret Communist leanings. Listen to the tapes and her laugh makes clear it was a slightly sarcastic quip.
This is an important point to be realized before last week’s media rush to judgement that Jackie disliked King solidifies as fact. The tape must be carefully audited. When Arthur Schlesinger first bluntly asks her about King, Jackie stammers, pauses lengthily and hesitates. Listen closely to each word she says about King. First, she makes it clear she is simply repeating what she was told by the President. Second, her syntax and raising her voice seems to indicate she is repeating a quote of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy:
“Bobby would be the one to find out what he ever thought of him in that way but Bobby told me later ‘I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking that man’s terrible.'”
One is freshly reminded as she recollects about JFK’s work as a U.S. Senator that unlike all First Ladies (except those three who married incumbent Presidents), Jackie didn’t help build his political career when they married. Instead, she was thrust into one that already existed and had to find her place within several layers of advisers like his hometown Boston Irish Mafia, House and Senate colleagues, European friends, policy academics and leading national journalists. It was not a result of any lack of interest in politics on Jackie’s part but her being initially cast as his emotional support by JFK himself:
“I think a woman always adapts, and especially if you’re very young when you get married. You know, you really become the kind of wife you can see that your husband wants….when you live with a man who’s so busy…you don’t just want to question him, question him at the end of the day. So you pick it up by what he’s telling someone else…what he wants to tell you . .though I might have been dying to know.”
At one point, Jackie asserts that if JFK hadn’t asked her to refrain from asking him about issues he’d faced all day, “”Then I’d be asking him.”
Despite this, Jackie admits that she was always prepared to intelligently discuss whatever political issues were before him, saying, “”You had to read the papers.” She confessed to suspecting some major crisis brewing and eavesdropping in on a top-secret strategy meeting during what proved to be the Cuban Missile Crisis but realized, “I mustn’t” and pulled away. Still, it was that turning point she termed “Cuba Two,” where JFK’s barricade between his home life and political life was broken. At one point she comically comments on how McGeorge Bundy was on the phones with JFK in a bedroom when she walked in as usual in her nightgown and how it freaked out the National Security Adviser. A day or two later, deep into the nuclear standoff, it got to the point where Bundy had to come into the room where President and First Lady were asleep in bed together in the wee hours and awake JFK, she recalled.
As early as “Cuba One,” the Bay of Pigs debacle in April of 1961, her inquisitiveness was, nevertheless, impossible to repress. In bed with her husband when he received a phone call from the Secretary of State which left him visibly stunned, it was hardly a docile Jackie who, suspecting a crisis, insisted of him, “What was it?” Despite her guilty push to learn more details, when she realized that the failed effort to invade communist Cuba was not just a foreign affairs disaster but a personal humiliation for JFK, she understood the political value of her personal influence as his solid emotional support. Sleep, distraction, mental and physical rest proved vital during the Bay of Pigs and she stuck “very close to Jack…to sort of comfort him.” She begins to emerge beyond being his loyal defender who delineates bad advice he received and using her claim of his emotional turmoil about the captured freedom fighters’ fate, to firmly declare her own opinion that, “It seems to me, if you’re going to do it [invade Cuba], you should have air cover.”
At times it appears that, on an international issue she’d developed her own, independent interest and shaped her opinions about before even marrying Kennedy, Jackie can’t help from pestering the President for more information. That issue was the growing U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia. At the time of the U.S. support for a coup of the Diem regime in South Vietnam, the First Lady questioned the President (though she did not say whether it was over the tacit and controversial assassination of President Diem). In her recalling of JFK’s response to her, Jackie casually drops a bombshell of just how deeply she was, at times, in the top-secret loop:
“‘Oh my God, kid…I’ve had that on me all day…don’t remind me of that all over again. Don’t ask me about those things. You can ask [McGeorge] Bundy to let you see all the cables'”….I used to get all the India and Pakistan cables…and the weekly C.I.A. summary…but finally I just couldn’t bear to read those anymore they put me in such a state of depression.”
She is even casually defensive about a vital Cabinet appointment on which she had apparently disagreed with the President. On the matter of choosing Senator William Fulbright or Dean Rusk (who was chosen) for Secretary of State, she first turned a question on Schlesinger before revealing her final choice: “Do you think it’s too bad that Fulbright wasn’t chosen? Me too….Dean Rusk seemed overtaken by that apathy and fear of making a wrong decision that so many people in the State Department had.”
If credited for her substance, the focus has always been on her expertise in history, the arts and literature. The dimension finally apparent in the tapes are her political sensibilities. While she is clearly more expert on recalling details of foreign affairs, her perceptions on the JFK Administration’s domestic agenda in education, medical care, taxes, and civil rights emerges through her pragmatic and often ruthless judgment of political figures.
She gives context to her aired remarks about Stevenson by supplying recollections of how the failed 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential candidate repeatedly disappointed JFK by seeking the 1960 nomination for himself. Some of her remarks about Stevenson also reflect Jackie’s own disappointment in Stevenson, whose candidacies had been the “first time I was ever interested, first time anyone brought anything intellectual to politics.” Not mentioned on the tapes was Jackie having composed Senator Kennedy’s 1956 endorsement of Stevenson, written in her own handwriting and preserved at the JFK Library.
On Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg‘s appointment by JFK to the Supreme Court, Jackie makes her own judgement, “amazed” that he ruled in favor of the right to publish anything about those in public office, and specifically recalled that he was one of three justices who said this could be done, even with “deliberate malice.” In one of the few remarks that deals directly with the assassination, she suggests that, “ads like that in the paper is partly what killed Jack,” and concludes, “They get so detached up in the Supreme Court.”
In fact although several of her excerpted remarks about individuals made headlines last week, she almost always qualifies them by offering a sympathetic remark about their strengths. The sole exception seems to be the “third-rate” and “corny” Postmaster General Day: “I never thought much of him….being in little skits at the Multiple Sclerosis ball…but that was just me.”
Nor did politics fall off her radar after the assassination. As a widow, Jackie drew up her own list of policies she claimed JFK had intended to initiate before his death and how his successor, new President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to share those intentions: “I wrote them down the other night, about five or six things he was going to do….they’ve all been done the wrong way.”
What also comes across is Jackie’s intrigue with the balance of power between men and women and effective use by either overt or covert methods. If she can dish out the gossipy details about historical figures, her voice turns passionate about the more abstract world of concepts and ideas. She returns frequently to themes which illuminate how power affects leaders to either seek to accumulate more of it or to use it on behalf of the powerless. Even her naive belief that wives should adapt their political views to those of their husband is balanced by her recognition of her own blindness by adding elsewhere on the issue, “it’s just sort of my own psychology.”
And she as much admits that a tendency to hold grudges and make harsh judgment of other human beings evolved into a more philosophical viewpoint. Offering both praise and criticism of French President Charles DeGaulle at different points during the interviews she finally reflects, “Nobody’s all black or all white.” She also learned to reduce her anxieties by discovering that instead of her fear the White House would separate husband and wife that the President working on the same premises as his home brought them closer: “You never can know what will be the best for you.” She also shows some of the skill she honed as a newspaper columnist, of asking one direct question to prompt self-revelation, evidenced as she tells of asking Jack his best and worst personal traits (“curiosity” and “irritability”), and to summarize himself, confessing that, in some press interviews, she attributed his pithy response of “idealist without illusions” to herself.
Rather than elitism, Jackie shows her regional bias and even as one identifying with her Mediterranean ancestry. “Wisconsin those people would stare at you,” she observed with disdain at the way voters there treated to her and JFK as they campaigned during the state’s 1960 primary,” alone all winter long. Cold, and just with animals. And just so suspicious. Maybe it’s cause they’re Nordic…eh!” It is also evident in her flattering remark about Pat Nixon’s attractiveness, piping up that she saw the outgoing Vice President’s wife had potential for “New York chic.” Not everyone needed New York standards to define themselves, Jackie failed to realize. Not even Californians.
While serving as their First Lady, however, her exposure to all Americans had also begun to change her own realizations of how privileged a life she lived and the justice necessary to change that of those unfairly denied a chance at equality. There is disgust in her voice at her own stepfather when the millionaire complains about raising the minimum wage, and shock at former President Eisenhower’s musing about whether Cuban refugees might become a new servant class. She settles on a few choice words like “hopeless” and “inferior” for a segregationist governor and beams with pride in recalling how JFK woke her up with a call at five in the morning because he “just wanted to talk” to her about the federal troops called in to enforce integration at the University of Mississippi.
Even her world view has widened. Instead of whispering about Paris fashions as might be assumed, she goes on about how humbled she felt after her trips to South America, grasping reasons for an “inferiority” complex felt by many of those nation’s poor and, after realizing that “America to them means both continents,” advising, “you have to bite your lip a couple of times when you say America.” Turning away from her previous Francophilia, Jackie suggests as a general foreign policy focus, “really we should turn to this hemisphere.”
Now and then, there is even small fodder for some personal idiosyncrasy worthy of gossip magazine distortion. Yes, as a result of “The Jackie Tapes,” she may be ranked with the likes of Florence Harding, Mary Lincoln and others who took stock in astrology, suggesting of JFK’s inquisitiveness and charisma, “Maybe it was [his being born under the sign of] Gemini.”
Whether or not one comes away from the tapes convinced by Jackie’s vision of Jack Kennedy’s unique intelligence marking his Presidency as a “brief, shining moment” in American history, its hard for anyone with a curiosity for knowledge not to feel wistful about having lost the vivid mind and creative imagination of this unique First Lady. Where now are those public figures with enough wit and stretch of cultural proficiency to describe the gaunt Cuban freedom fighters as having “El Greco faces” whereas before their imprisonment they’d resembled musicians in “Xavier Cugat’s band.”