RAY SUAREZ: And to a rare and intimate glimpse into history.
The new book “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” includes never-before-heard audio recordings of interviews conducted with the former first lady in 1964, shortly after her husband’s assassination.
The tapes were released by daughter Caroline Kennedy in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy administration.
Presidential historian and regular NewsHour guest Michael Beschloss edited and annotated the book, and he joins us now.
And, Michael, it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at life with JFK, life in the White House, and the life and times of the Kennedy administration.
What do you know now? What’s the most important thing you know now that you didn’t know before?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, the biggest thing, if we had talked a year ago, before I read this thing, I would have said Jacqueline Kennedy was a major figure obviously in JFK’s life and Kennedy’s Washington, did a lot for historic preservation, restored the White House, substituted the taste, perhaps, of Dwight Eisenhower, who had people like Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians play in the White House, for people like Pablo Casals.
But I wouldn’t have said that she was a major political figure in Kennedy administration. Now I would. One example of this is the number of times in this book where she runs down, say, someone like Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, says, “Jack, you should fire him.” And he says, “Well, maybe you’re right, but I can’t do it until 1964.”
She goes to Pakistan and there’s an ambassador of the United States she meets there, comes back, writes a letter at her husband’s behest that he sends on to the secretary of state. She had a lot more to do particularly with the personnel of this administration than think I would have thought.
RAY SUAREZ: We are taken into the back, private areas of the White House during some of the most tense times in the 1960s, for instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Jacqueline Kennedy tells historian and Kennedy insider Arthur Schlesinger about what those tense days were like for her and the family.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.
JACQUELINE KENNEDY, former first lady: But I said: “Please, don’t send me away to Camp David, you know, me and the children. Please don’t send me anywhere. If anything happens, we’re all going to say right here with you.”
And, you know — and I said, “Even if there’s not room in the bomb shelter in the White House,” which I had seen, I said, “Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens, you know, but I just want to be with you and I want to die with you. And the children do, too, than live without you.”
RAY SUAREZ: It’s a reminder that this wasn’t kidding around. The world felt like it was right on the precipice. When the first lady says to the president, “I and the children want to die with you,” it was striking.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And be out on the lawn, not in a bomb shelter.
And the other thing is, it tells something about their marriage. In my experience studying presidents, the president doesn’t have a great marriage with the first lady and there’s a big political crisis, the president usually doesn’t want to spend very much time with his wife, would rather be around cronies or something.
John Kennedy’s first instinct when he knows about the Cuban Missile Crisis — it is in the book — he calls up Jackie, who is in Virginia. There’s something funny in his voice, she says. He says, “Please bring the children right now back to the White House,” even though they were taking naps.
And the next 13 days, they spent very much together, went strolling out on the lawn together. He had a very — she had a very large part in his life, obviously, but particularly at this moment he looked to her for security.
RAY SUAREZ: Two things shone out again and again, how much she admired Kennedy’s personality, his intellect, the way he related to people on the campaign trail and at times how unsure of her own value to him she really was. Take a listen to this.
JACQUELINE KENNEDY: I was always a liability to him until we got to the White House. And he never asked me to change or said anything about it. Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics.
And then because I was off and having these babies, I wasn’t able to campaign, be around him as much as I could have. And he’d get so upset for me when something like that came out. And, sometimes, I would say, “Oh, Jack, I wish — I’m so sorry for you that I’m just such a dud.”
RAY SUAREZ: Sure, she was a little unsure campaigning at the beginning, but she was anything but a liability, right?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: As it turned out.
But the Kennedy operatives in 1960 thought that she would be, that people would be put off, that she would seem too effete. Some of them wished that she would be more like Pat Nixon. One once said, we will run Mrs. Kennedy through subliminally, worried about her politically.
The biggest surprise to both of them is, she becomes first lady and she’s the most enormous celebrity in the country. Everyone wants to wear their hair like Jackie, the women do, and do their houses and imitate her in other ways. And the poignant thing is that, when they went to Texas at the end of the Kennedy presidency, he had pleaded with her to go with him because she was such a political asset.
RAY SUAREZ: The interesting thing about the times is that right behind her is Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The model political wife of the time.
RAY SUAREZ: Waiting out just a little ways down the road are Lady Bird Johnson in her way, but also Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter. She seems on the edge of those two worlds, a helpmeet, a supporter, but also someone who is educated, quite sophisticated in her own right, and worried very much about how the burdens of the presidency were affecting her husband when she couldn’t help him.
Listen to this.
JACQUELINE KENNEDY: And he cared so much. He didn’t care about his 100 days, but all those poor men who you would send off with all their hopes high and promises that we would back them. And there they were, shot down like dogs or going to die in jail.
And Bobby came over to see me and said, “Please stay very close to Jack. I mean, just be around all afternoon.” If I was going to take children out — in other words, don’t leave anywhere, just to sort of comfort him.
RAY SUAREZ: The Bay of Pigs had been a disaster for the very young Kennedy administration, and she was watching it weigh on her husband.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, just three months in.
And he came in with very grandiose expectations, and, suddenly, three months later, he’s accused of being an incompetent, can’t get this done, the invasion of Cuba. He weeps with her in a bedroom in the weekend house they had in Virginia.
And, also, you look at Kennedy’s medical records. His doctors felt that he had gone into a depression. So she felt very much part of her job throughout this presidency was buoying him up when he needed it, and he often did.
RAY SUAREZ: Also, she was incredibly young, raising young children, and pregnant several times during that both campaign and early White House phase, but, at the same time, a woman energized by the life that she was living emerges from the texts of the Schlesinger interviews.
By 1964, when this interview was done, she seems to be pretty much at peace with her role in White House. Take a listen:
JACQUELINE KENNEDY: I always thought there was one thing merciful about the White House, which made up for the goldfish bowl and the Secret Service and all that, was that it was kind of — you were hermetically sealed or there was something protective against the outside world, I mean, as far as your private life went.
And I decided that was the best thing to do. Everyone should be trying to help Jack in whatever way they could. And that was the way I could do it the best, by making it always a climate of affection and comfort and detente when he came home.
RAY SUAREZ: Interesting that she was able to create privacy, when so many other first ladies more keenly feel that intrusion.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, that’s right.
And she didn’t want to go to the White House. She got very morose when he won, oddly enough, because she thought that life would wreck her family. And she was a woman of hugely strong will. And she basically said: I’m not going to be Mamie Eisenhower, campaigning and going to all these political and other kinds of banquets. My job is to support my husband, to raise my children well.
And she also took on for herself this huge project of restoring the White House, which she rightly felt when she encountered it looked like sort of a bad convention hotel which was full of B. Altman reproductions. She had to raise the money for it, huge project, so, all of that done at the same time. This was a woman who was very young, 31 when she became first lady, but of enormous accomplishment and talent.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the coverage over the last week has gone to her sharp and sometimes even a little snarky observations on the…
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One or two.
RAY SUAREZ: Yes, the great and the good of her age. But that just shows that she was paying attention, doesn’t it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She was paying very close attention.
And if you looked at the oral history, if there was one, of a first lady that was more traditional, perhaps a Mamie Eisenhower, I doubt if she would have had independent opinions about a secretary of state or an ambassador, and fulfilled that role for her husband.
RAY SUAREZ: So what do we see in Jackie, a sort of hybrid?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think a hybrid, and I think you’re right in saying that she was a transitional figure.
She knew that she had to function in a period where people didn’t want to see her attending Cabinet meetings, which she had no interest in doing and didn’t. But, at the same time, she knew that that generation of woman could not any longer be content to be a Mamie Eisenhower or one of the earlier first ladies, who basically poured tea.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, thanks for joining us.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Pleasure, Ray.