Jackie Talks! The famously close-mouthed, much-admired First Lady is now speaking out tonight on ABC in a “Diane Sawyer Exclusive.” Yes, Diane has the biggest “get” so far this season, with a special devoted to the tapes Mrs. Kennedy made just months after her husband’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. The audiotapes, and a book based on them, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,” will be released on Wednesday.
Mrs. Kennedy, then 34, talked with the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in a seven-part interview. During it, she was surprisingly candid about her views. For example, she called Charles de Gaulle, then President of France, “an egomaniac,” and said about Martin Luther King Jr. “I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.” She also called him a "phony." The widowed First Lady soured on King as a result of secret wiretaps arranged by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had told President Kennedy that King tried to arrange a sex party while in town for the civil-rights March on Washington, and told Robert Kennedy that King had made derogatory comments during the president’s funeral.
She also declares that Indira Gandhi, who later became Prime Minister of India, is “a real prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman.” Of Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the president of South Vietnam, and Clare Boothe Luce, a former member of Congress and prominent conservative, she tells Schlesinger, in a stage whisper, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”
Perhaps most significant of all, she quotes her husband’s opinion of Lyndon Johnson by saying: “Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?” (Johnson became an influential president, signing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.)
Throughout the tapes, however, her description of her husband is positive and almost adoring, and she describes herself as a traditional wife. Her goal, she says, was to provide “a climate of affection and comfort and détente” — and keep the children in good moods.
She does not mention JFK’s many infidelities or his health problems. Rather she describes him as loyal, sensitive and courageous. Though she does briefly mention his “sort of crude side,” she then backtracks, saying, “not that Jack had a crude side.” She also suggests that they never had a fight.
She talks as well about various significant events in her husband’s presidency. How he cried after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which Cuban exiles tried to invade Cuba, and how she wanted to stay with him during the Cuban missile crisis.
“If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you,” she says she told him in October 1962. “I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too — than live without you.”
In her foreword to the book, Caroline Kennedy says her decision to publish was prompted by the 50th anniversary of her father’s election to the presidency in 1960. It would be a disservice, she said, to allow her mother’s perspective to be absent from the public and scholarly debate.
But is there something a little strange hearing Jackie’s voice from the grave being tart and snappish about some people, while ignoring truths about her husband’s behavior that she obviously knew? And this docile Jackie, who insists she got her opinions from her husband, doesn’t seem very much like the woman who supposedly had her own series of affairs while First Lady. Nor the woman who. only a few years later, shocked the world by marrying the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. She then used Teddy Kennedy to negotiate a generous divorce settlement for her while Onassis lay dying. Jackie went on to lead a full and independent life in New York as a devoted mother, a philanthropic socialite and a respected book editor.
To millions, Jackie was always mysterious, fascinating, and admirable, partly because she said little and seemed to represent so much style and substance. Isn’t it disillusioning to discover that Jackie, was not really very different. Like so many others, she was, when necessary, a master of spin.
Myrna Blyth is editor-in-chief of ThirdAge.
What do you think about the The Jackie Kennedy Interviews?