It really started with constituent mail.
She was the new wife of a new United States Senator who represented the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a constituency at the time of many first-generation immigrants. And she could speak and write well in French, Spanish, and Italian, and even could manage some German and Polish.
So initially Jacqueline Kennedy helped to compose responses to constituent mail for her husband John F. Kennedy in the foreign langauges which the incoming letters were written in. And then, he gently pushed her, couldn’t she say a few words of greeting in those foreign languages to those constituencies during his 1958 Senate re-election campaign?
That’s how Jackie Kennedy began her nervous career as a public speaker.
Almost always gently encouraged with him smiling by her side and she not wanting to disappoint him, the pattern soon developed. JFK would deliver his opening remarks and then introduce his wife Jackie Kennedy who could, he promised, more effectively translate his message in their native tongue.
Two years after his Senate re-election, Jackie Kennedy surge enough courage in her to also begin making remarks that she composed in a way to both crystallize the reasons why she believed voters should support her husband for President and make her presentation as short as possible. Largely off the active campaign trail due to her pregnancy, she even taped several campaign commercials on his behalf.
Always self-conscious of not only how perfectly she pronounced her words in a foreign language but her diction and delivery, its obvious from those recordings which were made of Jackie Kennedy delivering speeches and public remarks was hesitant and nervous. It’s when she tended to speak with her famous breathy voice, which was not the normal sound of her voice. Oftentimes she blinks rapidly, sometimes lowering her head modestly.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis never adapted to public speaking naturally but the point is that she kept doing it because she knew her husband took pride in her for trying and because it soon translated into genuine political currency.
She had delivered her first known speech in 1947 while in high school, at Miss Porter’s School, the boarding school in Farmington, Connecticut. In her senior year, as a member of a student group known as Little Meeting, she was expected to publicly deliver her thesis, and chose to address what she saw as the duty of individuals to each other, entitled “Be Kind and Do Your Share.”
As First Lady, she famously led the nation on a televised tour of the White House, explaining the historic renovation she had been conducting there. New documentation shows that she herself wrote and edited the speech carefully.
When it came to standing up before crowds to deliver a live speech, however, she remained nervous. Doing so in a language other than English seemed to almost serve as a layer of protection from being exposed on a stage or platform.
While she made remarks in English during her 1962 tour of India and Pakistan, it was with the President on state visits to Latin American countries where her command of Spanish sent crowds wild with enthusiasm for the American presidential couple.
That translated into welcome support, particularly from the grassroots up in those “non-aligned” nations the U.S. was hoping to win over or at least keep away from accepting Soviet support for their infrastructure, schools and hospitals.
The radio advertisements which Jackie Kennedy had taped during the 1960 presidential campaign in 1960 are largely forgotten in the story of her husband’s historically razor-thin victory. Broadcast throughout New York City in the days leading up to Election Day, they were played heavily in the boroughs with its heavy Puerto Rican and Dominican populations. Those districts proved to be the tipping point for New York State’s electoral votes that year which gave JFK the winning margin.
And so it was almost a given that the First Lady would deliver remarks in Spanish on the first unofficial trip of JFK’s 1964 re-election campaign in Texas.
On the night of the day they arrived in Texas, November 21, 1963, after landing in San Antonio where the President spoke at the dedication of an air force base medical center, they proceeded to Houston. Before attending a large Texas Democratic Party fundraiser, they attended an event in the Rice Hotel for the politically powerful League of Latin American Citizens, perhaps the oldest of political organizations representing the growing Latino constituency in the U.S.
After addressing the crowd, the President turned the microphone over to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, “in order that my words may be even clearer.”
And, as she had now done on countless occasions, Jackie wowed the crowds by speaking in their native tongue:
“I’m happy to be in the great state of Texas and I’m especially pleased to be with you, who are part of the great Spanish tradition, which has contributed so much to Texas. This tradition began a hundred years before my husband’s state, Massachusetts, was settled, but it is a tradition that is today alive and vigorous. You are working for Texas and the United States. Thank yoiu and viva las Lucas!”
Here is a video taken of Mrs. Kennedy delivering her remarks:
As they left the ballroom, JFK asked his aide how the number of crowds on the trip so far compared to a trip he had made alone to Houston the year before. “About a hundred thousand more,” Powers estimated. The President turned to his wife and said, “You see, you do help.” As they walked the hall to the elevator Jackie made another, more impromptu speech to a gathering of Mexican-American employees there.
She told an aide with some pride that she was growing more optimistic of her role in the 1964 campaign because, as she said, “I am needed.”
- The Kennedy Family’s Last Weekend Together in Home Movies (carlanthonyonline.com)
- ‘Our country died with him a little bit that day’ (star-telegram.com)
- JFK’s last night: The Kennedy mystique and Latino power (voxxi.com)
- The Kennedy Family’s Last Public Appearance Together (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Jackie Kennedy’s Surprise Party for Her Confidential Friend of a Lifetime (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Jackie Onassis Confirmed JFK “picked” her Pink Suit for Dallas, Four Years Before She Died (carlanthonyonline.com)
- One conspiracy theory that could be true (cnn.com)
- Poll: Most Americans still think there was a JFK cover-up (cbsnews.com)