Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
By Caroline Kennedy & Michael Beschloss
(Hyperion, 400 pages, 8 CDs, $60)
THIS BOOK CONSISTS of the transcripts of seven rather extensive tape-recorded conversations that Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of our 35th president, made in 1964 with court historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Their free-wheeling style and sometimes indiscreet content underscores the fact that they were intended for generations yet unborn, to be sealed for 50 years or more. The decision of the Kennedy family to allow their publication now responds not–as Caroline Kennedy disingenuously insists in the introduction to this volume–to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her father’s inauguration, but rather as part of a bargain with one of the major television networks, which was otherwise planning to release a docudrama on the Kennedy dynasty not wholly to the taste of our self-styled reigning family.
The hold that the Kennedy legend has on a large (though happily steadily diminishing) sector of the American media and public is highlighted by the fact that this book is accompanied by eight compact discs that reproduce the conversations as recorded. Quite why one needs to hear the back-and-forth between Mrs. Kennedy (as she then was) and Professor Schlesinger is not clear. In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer has not bothered to listen to them. The printed text is more than enough.
For those too young to recall the Kennedy years, it perhaps is worth noting that the arrival of a young president and his even younger spouse to the White House in early 1961 was not so much a political as a style event. Never before–at least never before in the experience of those alive to witness it–had the presidency and the presidential family been surrounded by the aura of such film-star glamour. The Roosevelts were aristocratic, but in an understated and unstudied way; the Trumans were unapologetically dowdy; the Eisenhowers were plain people who had lived in a series of government-issued military dwellings. None made the slightest effort to differentiate themselves from ordinary Americans. As Mrs. Kennedy snidely comments in an aside, “before [JFK] politics was just left to corny old people who shouted on the 4th of July.” The Kennedys brought something entirely new to the White House–the celebrity presidency, full of glitz and flash. As both the Clintons and Obamas have since learned, it is a tough act to follow, which of course doesn’t stop them from trying.
While these conversations do not break much historiographical ground–why should they?–they are not lacking in historical interest. Mrs. Kennedy had the opportunity to know a great many important people, and some of her impressions of them are quite interesting. She quotes the daughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as saying, “If only I could get a decent cook!” She describes Indira Gandhi (Nehru’s daughter, soon to be prime minister of India in her own right) as “a real prune–kind of pushy, horrible woman….It always looks like she’s sucking lemon.” Both Mme. Nhu of Vietnam and Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce are bracketed as “hating men [because] they resent getting their power through men.” Then she leans forward and whispers to Schlesinger, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians”–a judgment that would astound any man who had ever met either woman.
There are slightly nasty comments on the major American political figures of the day–particularly Chester Bowles and Adlai Stevenson, both of whom were full-dress Liberal Bores for whom the president and his hard-scrabble Boston Irish gang understandably had little time. Schlesinger, who had defected from Stevenson in 1960 to join the Kennedy bandwagon, does not protest when his interlocutor describes his former idol thus: “I always thought that women who were scared of sex loved Adlai.” And then there is poor Pat Nixon. “I used to see her at bandage rolling,” Mrs. Kennedy recalls. “You know, the Senate wives have to go roll bandages every Tuesday and the vice president’s wife is always the chairman of it.” To which Schlesinger snidely interjects, “I think she’d be perfect at bandage–bandage rolling.” The other references to Mrs. Nixon are too painful to cite; they all emphasize her deplorable dress sense and hair style. Poor thing–her mother died young and she had to go to work almost immediately; she didn’t get to go to a finishing school in Paris and become elegant like Jacqueline Bouvier.
THE MOST SENSATIONAL revelation, of course, has to do with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Mrs. Kennedy did not precisely admire, and about whom she seems to have known quite a bit, thanks to the fact that her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy, was attorney general at the time and in close communion with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. As is now known, the latter were eavesdropping on Dr. King’s telephone conversations. When the latter came to Washington for a freedom march, so the president told his wife, “he said this with no bitterness or anything, how he [King] was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women, I mean, sort of an orgy in the hotel, and everything….Since then Bobby’s told me of the tapes of these orgies they have and how Martin Luther King made fun of Jack’s funeral.” For Mrs. Kennedy, Dr. King was “a tricky person….I just can’t see a picture of [him] without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.” Of course, this was four years before his assassination.
The critical comments on Dr. King, and also on Fidel Castro, Nehru, Sukarno, and Nkrumah, former Brazilian president João Goulart, not to mention certain remarks about effeminate (gay?) men in the Foreign Service–none of which Mrs. Kennedy would make publicly if she were alive today–show how far to the left our political culture has moved since these tapes were made. Nor would she express unhappiness with the Sullivan decision of the Supreme Court (which enables some of the mischief-making of today’s drive-by media). The frequent references to wealthy friends like Earl E. T. Smith or Charles Wrightsman (both Republicans) or the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (former in-laws of the president) underscore the fact that the Kennedys preferred the company of the Palm Beach-cum-English country house set and also the degree to which the Democratic Party now depends far more on new money rather than on old. The chumminess with writers and owners of the elite media is another change; today no president (or journalist, for that matter) would admit to such intimacy, whatever the facts.
Michael Beschloss, who provided the (sometimes inaccurate, sometimes incomplete) notes to this volume, introduces us to Mrs. Kennedy by praising her work in restoring the White House. No doubt this was a worthy endeavor, but if one did not know otherwise, one might have thought that no other first lady had ever done anything worthwhile or significant. Actually many of our first ladies have been women of considerable substance–more, indeed, if I may say so, than Jacqueline Kennedy. Florence Harding successfully ran her husband’s newspaper in Ohio and was the first to welcome African-American women socially to the White House. Lou Henry Hoover co-translated an important Latin text on metallurgy, traveled all over China with her husband in his capacity as a mining engineer, and learned to speak perfect Mandarin. Grace Coolidge taught lip-reading at a school for the deaf. And everybody knows about Eleanor Roosevelt. These first ladies were, of course, products of the pre-television age. But even if today’s media had existed a hundred years ago, it is difficult to imagine that their recollections, however worthy or interesting, would justify such a costly format as this.