On the eve of the release of historian Michael Beschloss’ new book, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, Diane Sawyer hosted a two-hour long special chronicling the previously unheard eight-and-a-half hours worth of audio of the former First Lady.
The ABC special — watch it here — featured the revealing interviews that historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. conducted with Mrs. Kennedy just four months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as well Sawyer’s interview with Caroline Kennedy, who revealed why she opted to release the tapes to the public now.
For anyone that was already deeply intrigued by the Kennedy clan, and the notion of Camelot, the sounds of a soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy talking, often in great detail, about life in and out of the White House was, no doubt, captivating. For those less familiar, it served as a unique history lesson.
Through the surprisingly crystal-clear audio (which was occasionally interrupted by the sound of ice hitting glasses, a cigarette being lit, a plane flying overhead, or the joyous rustling of a young John F. Kennedy Jr.), the former First Lady shared a side of herself — and her family — most had never known before. While the Jackie O we all knew and loved was poised, in the interviews (there was a series of seven total), she admits she was very much aware of herself and her image and how that would effect her husband when he took office. “I was always a liability to him. Everyone thought I was a snob … He’d get so upset for me when something like that came out [in the press],” she said, adding that she told her husband she worried that when it came to being a First Lady, “I’m just such a dud.”
But, Mrs. Kennedy, who compared life in the White House to “a fishbowl” and tried to protect herself — and especially her children — from scrutiny. (At one point in the tapes, the First Lady said she tried to reinforce to her son and daughter that their time in the White House was “temporary,” then, alluded to her husband’s death, “I’m glad I did because of the way it ended.”)
Of course, with the tapes now released (Caroline Kennedy told Sawyer she chose to release them now, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of her father being sworn into office), there will likely be some scrutiny. Throughout, Mrs. Kennedy talks rather candidly about her feelings on certain topics (women in politics) and leaders (Martin Luther King, Jr.) that come off as shocking, to say the least. Supporters would be sure to point out, though, that her statements were made at a delicate time in her life (she was still reeling from President Kennedy’s death). As Caroline put it, “That’s obviously not the mother I remember later on.”
The sound bites in question include Mrs. Kennedy talking about strong, politically minded feminist women in the political arena. She describes them as, “All these twisted poor little women whose lives hadn’t worked out … [They had] this queer thing for power.” After receiving irate letters from said women (who she described as people who “resented getting their power through men”) about how she formed her opinion, Kennedy told Schlesinger, rather, matter-of-factly, “I get all my opinions from my husband, which is true. How could I have any political opinions? His were going to be the best.” Mrs. Kennedy added that, because of their emotions and inability to disconnect, “Women should never be in politics.”
Another moment that has already got people talking is the First Lady’s statements about Martin Luther King, Jr. After J. Edgar Hoover, who a historian in the segment noted hated Dr. King, had told President Kennedy that the civil rights leader was throwing parties that involved sexual escapades, Mrs. Kennedy shared, “I said, ‘Oh, but Jack, that’s so terrible. I mean that man is a, you know, such a phony.” She added about President Kennedy himself: “He would never judge anyone in any sort of way. He never said anything against Martin Luther King, Jr.” Caroline Kennedy insisted to Sawyer that her mother was actually quite fond of Dr. King.
Other sound bites of note throughout the special:
On President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Really, he kept us [as a nation] standing still.”
On First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, whom she had a troubled relationship with: “There was venom or something there.”
On her husband becoming President in 1961: “Once he was in control … all the best things would happen.”
On the Bay of Pigs invasion: “He started to cry … just with me. Just put his head in his hands and sort of wept. And, it was so sad. He cared so much … all those poor men.”
On the Cuban Missile Crisis: “[I told John] please don’t send me away to Camp David … Even if there’s not room in the bomb shelter in the White House, which I’d seen … I just want to be with and want to die with you and the children do too.” She later noted, “That was the time I was closest to him, I never left the house or saw the children. I stayed by his side.”
On Charles de Gaulle and the French (Kennedy herself was fluent in the language): “He was so full of spite … I loathe the French, they’re really not very nice, they’re all for themselves.”
On Lyndon B. Johnson, as a Vice President: “[He had] an enormous ego … [He] just didn’t do anything.”
On Johnson, after he took office as President: “People will think I’m bitter, but I just want it to be put in context the kind of president Jack was and Lyndon is.”
Still, for all the buzz-worthy soundbites (there’s a truly sad moment when 3-year-old Jack is asked where his father is, to which he replies, “He’s gone to heaven”)and insights into their still-talked about marriage (she described their time in the White House as their “happiest years”) and his infidelities (they’d have “Renewals of love after brief separations”), it was the intimate moments and details that Mrs. Kennedy shared that really stuck out the most. She spoke candidly about the two children she lost, President Kennedy’s severe bouts with back pain, having Caroline and John John play in the White House (“He loved having those children tumbling around him”), and his deep affections for her as she was (“He never asked me to change”). With just eight-and-a-half hours of tape, Mrs. Kennedy has left us with a new record of history.
Which part of the Jackie Kennedy special stuck out with you the most, PopWatchers? Share in the comments section below.