ANYONE WHO hears or reads Jacqueline Kennedy’s recollections of her husband’s administration is bound to wonder when she’s offering her own candid opinions and when she’s holding back in order to burnish her husband’s reputation. It’s a fascinating question, because family members of presidents bear responsibilities to do both - to further the historical record, even while managing the family reputation.
It is in that spirit that Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, decided to release her mother’s taped memories, which were recorded by the historian, White House aide, and family friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. a few months after President Kennedy’s assassination. Early excerpts suggest that Mrs. Kennedy’s recollections aren’t always flattering to her, let alone to some of the world leaders and Kennedy administration stalwarts whom she derides.
The new DVD and book-length transcript, set to be released today, probably won’t further Mrs. Kennedy’s image as either a figure of extraordinary poise or a scholarly muse above the vulgarities of politics. Which, of course, is why Caroline Kennedy deserves extra credit for releasing the information: She trusts the public, and posterity, to put these recordings in their proper context.
On the tapes, Mrs. Kennedy reportedly offers critical observations about many of the people who crossed her White House path, from Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson - political rivals of JFK who later became his friends - to international figures like Charles de Gaulle and Indira Gandhi. She comes off, at first blush, as neither especially gracious nor unusually insightful - except, perhaps, in talking up her late husband, whom she presents as sexy, charismatic, brilliant, and humble.
That should serve as a reminder to listeners that Jacqueline Kennedy was the first to use the Camelot story to describe the arc of the Kennedy presidency, one of the most effective attempts at imaging in political history. She was still in myth-making mode when she sat down with Schlesinger, which helps explain her tone. She was eager to promote her husband, present herself as a loyal helpmate who accepted his opinions as her own, and contrast his star power with the lesser wattage of politicians such as Johnson, Stevenson, and Dwight Eisenhower.
No doubt, Caroline Kennedy trusts that historians will be able to parse her mother’s motives. And, if Jacqueline Kennedy comes off as a bit cattier and more opinionated than had been previously believed, well, that’s part of the record, too. The former First Lady was, after all, in a state of grief, trying to balance loyalty to her husband with a desire to provide contemporaneous oral history - which means relating the anecdotes and details that might slip away with the passage of time. Perhaps an eagerness to be helpful led her to bypass her usual politeness and try to call it as she saw it.
Thanks to Caroline Kennedy, historians - and everyday listeners and readers - can judge that for themselves.