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The Jacqueline Kennedy tapes: Beyond the gossip

Posted by Rob Anderson  September 24, 2011 11:36 AM

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30192533good__1316097732_9730.jpgAfter "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy" was released this month, much of the media focused on its salacious bits of gossip. That's understandable. The seven-part interview conducted with Jacqueline Kennedy months after the assassination of her husband contains more than a few jaw-droppers. But the oral history is also a significant primary document for anyone hoping to grasp a more accurate understanding of the Kennedys' time in the White House.

Ellen Fitzpatrick is a historian and author of the 2010 book "Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation." I conducted an online conversation with her via e-mail to better understand the tapes' significance to the historical record.

You can view the photo above, along with more photos of Jacqueline Kennedy from the Boston Globe archives, in this slideshow.

Boston Globe: As a historian who has worked on a book composed of letters written to Jackie Kennedy after the death John F. Kennedy, do you think these tapes should change Americans' perception of the former first lady?

Ellen Fitzpatrick: Yes, I do. The tapes have the effect of humanizing Mrs. Kennedy and providing hints of the person she was in the spring of 1964. She was then a young woman, who was only a few months away from a profoundly traumatic experience. Yet she speaks with intelligence, wit, composure, a good deal of penetrating observation, humor, some anger, and certainly very strong opinions about her White House years. They are a direct, personal, and immediate source that provide a far better sense of her than the accounts written by those she never said a single word to.

BG: Personally, were you surprised by them?

EF: Not really. Many forget that Mrs. Kennedy was the object not only of fascination but of some criticism when her husband was running for president, as she notes herself on the tapes. It didn't entirely abate from all quarters when he was elected. The "First Family" album by comedian Vaughn Meader, that she took umbrage at, captured some of the prevailing views of her, of JFK, and of the Kennedy family. Her iconic status really came after President Kennedy's death when she withdrew from public life and was rarely heard from publicly. The Jacqueline Kennedy on these tapes fits, I think, with what we might have expected if we think of her from the vantage point of her White House years.

BG: How about her view of women? In the tapes, she tells the interviewer that she gets all of her opinions from her husband and that women should never be in politics.

EF: These comments, which sound so antiquated to modern ears, reflect, obviously, Mrs. Kennedy's perspective at this moment in her life. Undoubtedly they were derived in part from her background, her class, her sensibility. But they also capture views that were shared by many in her generation. The women's movement of the later 1960s transformed our sense of women's place in politics and society. But it was preceded (and necessitated) by very traditional notions of women's roles that are captured in these statements. They underscore the fact that the "feminine mystique" was not a figment of Betty Friedan's imagination!

At the same time, the tapes themselves are replete with examples of Mrs. Kennedy's independent thinking and ironically, she describes again and again incidents when her views diverged from those of her husband. Her comments on women in politics, in fact, follows her observation that she found it difficult to forgive politicians with whom JFK had crossed swords while her husband saw such conflicts as very much a part of the business of politics. She observes: "Jack would never — he'd often say that — never get in anything so deep that you've lost all chance of conciliation. ... I mean, I'd get terribly emotional about anyone, whether it was a politician or newspaper person who would be unfair, but he always treated it so objectively, as if they were people on a chess board — which is right. . ... [I]f he'd gotten so mad at all those people, then you may need to work with them again later. So, it's the only way to be effective." It is, of course, a stereotype to ascribe such differences in temperament to gender. She admired his equilibrium and ability to be dispassionate and clearly thought it came more easily to him and to all men than it did to her and other women.

BG: Kennedy worked hard during her life to carefully craft her family's image. She was, after all, the first person to compare the Kennedy presidency to Camelot. Are these tapes a rare example of the unvarnished Kennedy, or are they just another example of calculated myth making?

EF: I think it would be very cynical — and completely wrong — to see her remarks on these tapes as calculated myth making. There is an off the cuff quality to these conversations, a rambling, even at times disjointed mood that shows Kennedy in a reflective mood. Much of what we hear is quite unvarnished. The conversations range over several days and many hours.The sound bites that have gotten the most media attention were stripped of their context and when that is provided, as it is in the tapes, one gets a sense of a person who intensely enjoyed some of her experience in the White House and was overwhelmed by and even abhorred some of what she saw. She does not, it is true, share with Schlesinger any doubts about or criticism of her husband. That isn't surprising.

BG: How should Americans react to and absorb that fuller picture of Kennedy? It seems many are disappointed to see an icon in a more human light.

EF: Those who admired Jacqueline Kennedy will, I suspect, continue to do so. Those who didn't will retain their views. One thing that fuels fascination with these figures is that President Kennedy was both our first "television" president — someone we felt we came to know through the immediacy of mass media — and the last president to enjoy what would soon became an outmoded deference from the press who avoided publishing stories about the president's health, private life, and personal foibles that are covered widely today. So he had the benefits and few of the liabilities of extensive media coverage. In addition, the Kennedy's brought the youngest children to the White House of any presidential family in modern history at a time when the World War II generation was raising the baby boomers. Many identified with them despite their unusual wealth and movie star good looks. Finally, the tragic circumstances of President Kennedy's death created a profound grief in the nation and joined, in some sense, Americans who lived through this experience to a memory of this vivacious first family. Mrs. Kennedy's dignity in the face of that tragedy moved millions of people and will make her, I suspect, someone who many will always admire. It is, in the end, better to see our presidents — and everyone else around us — as human beings than to engage in an idealization that really diminishes our own agency and sense of responsibility.

BG: What about the timing? Why do you think Caroline Kennedy decided to release these tapes now?

EF: I think for the reasons she explains in her foreword to the book. She wanted to add her mother's perspective to the historical record- to have her voice heard. The 50th anniversary of her father's presidency provided an occasion to release new material that might re-energize scholarly inquiry into and enlighten public discussion of his White House years. I think it was, in fact, extremely courageous of her to release this material. It speaks to a willingness to trade a more human portrait of her parents for the idealized iconic images — as well as, of course, the harsh and intensely negative depictions also out there. She's showed she can handle it — she trusts enthusiasts and critics of her family can handle it too. It is all to the good for the larger endeavor of historical inquiry.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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