By Tom Putnam
Fifty years ago today, Jacqueline Kennedy introduced herself to the nation.
In many ways, the public already knew Kennedy through her roles as the president’s wife, mother of two children, and as the woman who charmed world leaders like Khrushchev and De Gaulle. Yet on Feb. 14, 1962 it was a more substantive Jacqueline Kennedy who guided viewers on a televised tour of the White House. And the nation was transfixed.
Forty-six million Americans watched that night – and an additional 10 million tuned in days later. The reviews were laudatory describing Kennedy as a virtuoso performer and an art critic of “subtlety and standard.”
The success came as no surprise to those who knew her. Though only 31 when she entered the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy’s life and studies prepared her well for this role.
Claiming that her first responsibility was to her husband and her children, Kennedy delegated to others many of the official duties normally associated with first ladies. Yet at the same time, she also expanded her portfolio, most notably, leading a scholarly restoration of the White House and its historic surroundings. She set out to make the president’s home one of the nation’s most significant museums that would recount our national story through the lives of its former residents.
Her efforts were an early example of what foreign policy experts refer to as “soft power.” She understood that as the United States came of age we needed to celebrate our artistic and cultural achievements just as we promoted our commercial and military might.
She used the White House as an international stage inviting distinguished artists such as Pablo Casals to perform, hosting state dinners for visiting dignitaries, and organizing gatherings like the 1962 dinner for Nobel laureates. She opened the doors to increase public visitation, created the first White House Guidebook, and welcomed young artists for jazz and dance performances.
As the Kennedy presidency unfolded, she expanded her reach - negotiating with the French for an unprecedented foreign loan of the Mona Lisa and raising funds to save the Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel.
This week the Kennedy Library opens Jacqueline Kennedy’s papers chronicling her years in the White House. The documents show her attention to detail and the incredible range of her understanding of art, history, and aesthetics.
The Kennedy presidency was cut too short, in many ways. Yet Boston continues to reap many benefits from Jacqueline Kennedy’s promotion of the arts and her belief in the importance of studying the past. In a city with no dearth of museums, visitors to the Kennedy Library are offered a unique experience. While most come to relive a key moment in the history of our country, they are also afforded, through the efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy, the opportunity to experience an array of precious artifacts including an Egyptian statue from the Great Pyramid of Giza; a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta (a gift from Pope Paul VI); an 18th century American chest of drawers given by President Martin Van Buren to his grandson; and a 2nd century stucco Buddha head from Afghanistan (made all the more precious after the Taliban’s recent efforts to destroy similar icons throughout that region). These ancient relics contrast smartly with the iconic modernist building designed by I.M. Pei who was personally chosen by Mrs. Kennedy for this historic commission.
In what was perhaps her greatest cultural gift to this city, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis facilitated the donation of Ernest Hemingway’s papers to the Kennedy Library – one of Boston’s most significant literary collections. Hemingway revolutionized literature as we know it – and these materials allow the Kennedy Library to serve as the host to unparalleled literary and cultural events such as the bestowing of the annual PEN/Hemingway Award and the Hemingway Centennial conference featuring four former winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Such celebrations and exhibits are guided by the spirit of a young woman who assuredly entered the nation’s living rooms 50 years ago today – echoing like encores to that virtuoso performance.
Tom Putnam is the director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.