I would have loved to hear Martha Washington’s thoughts on how her husband George felt about the group we now refer to as the founding fathers. And, of course, all of us would have loved to hear in Mary Todd Lincoln’s own words how she dealt with the most tragic time in our nation’s history. Given the limitations of 18th and 19th century communications, we’ll never know exactly how these women viewed their husband’s presidencies and the toll it took on them. But this year, we’ve been treated to an amazing gift with Jacqueline Kennedy, Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, an oral history with the historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Recorded in 1964, four months after her husband’s assassination, Jackie gives us a wonderful window into her husband’s years in the White House and her thoughts on many of the players in her husband’s administration and the times in which they lived. The audio recordings give us a sense of this enigmatic first lady: her likes, dislikes, and her sense of humor. To hear Jackie’s voice, intonations, pauses and yes, even her laugh, adds much to the oral history.
What did she and her husband think of President Eisenhower, Kennedy’s predecessor? Who were Kennedy’s favorite world leaders? What cabinet members did her husband find ineffective? What about Kennedy’s Supreme Court appointees? Jackie has definite opinions of nearly everyone she met and she shares them in a very candid way. She was surprisingly critical of some notable Kennedy insiders, including Kennedy speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, describing him as having an incredible inferiority complex. And, perhaps to no one’s surprise, she’s tough on Lyndon Johnson, her husband’s vice president. She commented that Johnson never expressed an opinion of his own in meetings with Kennedy and his cabinet. Here is a sampling of some of her frank, and, in some cases, tart assessments:
President Kennedy didn’t think much of Dwight Eisenhower. ‘Eisenhower would be the worst president of the United States with the possible exception of James Buchanan.’
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was a favorite of Kennedy’s: “He loved Macmillan. Jack had this high sense of mischief and so did Macmillan, so I’ve never seen two people enjoy each other so.” Of course, Kennedy as a young man had spent time in England and his sister Kathleen had married into the English aristocracy so he and Macmillan had shared bonds and both loved history, especially British history.
Jackie is particularly critical of Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk and opined that Kennedy would have likely replaced him in a second administration. Rusk wasn’t Kennedy’s first choice for Secretary of State. He had preferred J. William Fulbright. But Fulbright, a southerner like Rusk, had a controversial background on civil rights which prevented Kennedy from selecting him. Kennedy commented that sending an order to Rusk at the State Department was “like dropping it in the dead letter box.”
Kennedy made two Supreme Court appointments during his administration: Byron White and Arthur Goldberg. Jackie comments that they were both good appointments but she is personally critical of Goldberg, who she thought was a big egomaniac, “I’ve never seen a man who never stops talking about himself.”
Jackie also talked about the 1964 campaign saying that she was looking forward to it and speculated on who would be the likely Republican nominee: She hoped Barry Goldwater, but considered other possibilities: George Romney, William Scranton, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon.
Aside from the political, Jackie also talks about her personal life with the president. Her husband was formal, “never holding hands or putting his arm around her in public”. He always addressed people in a formal way, including his in-laws, the Auchinclosses, always addressing them as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Auchincloss.
She makes it clear the highlight of the president’s day was playing with the children in the morning over breakfast and often taking Caroline to the office for a visit. There is a particularly touching moment in the taping when 3-year-old, John F. Kennedy Jr. walks into Jackie’s living room and Scheslinger asks him, “Where’s your daddy?” To which John replies, “My daddy’s in heaven.”
In her conversations with Schlesinger, there is no direct discussion of the assassination or a recounting of the events of November 22, 1963. That conversation was reserved for historian William Manchester who was in 1964 researching his authorized book about the assassination, The Death of a President.
Contemporary listeners of the tapes will wonder about Jackie’s now antiquated views on women and their role in society and her critical opinion of some now revered historical figures, notably Martin Luther King Jr. Jackie described him as a “phony.” But as with any historical personage, he or she has to be appreciated for the particular time and context in which they lived. Jackie’s oral history serves as a wonderful historical record for those of us who still have vague memories of her, but even better for future generations who will have to view her through a “distant mirror.”
To read and hear more, you can purchase: Jacqueline Kennedy, Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, 1964. Published by Hyperion Press.