Here is the great lesson of the newly unsealed Jacqueline Kennedy oral history tapes: Jackie said some snarky things. And her biting, often witty remarks have actually burnished and freshened up her image. Doesn’t it make her seem more real, likable, shrewd and contemporary to have called Indira Gandhi “a prune”?
If you watched Diane Sawyer’s two-hour special last night, Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words, you’d already heard the most explosive, cutting bits from that oral history: that Jackie had called Lyndon Johnson out on his “enormous ego” and said Martin Luther King was a “terrible” man (based partly on rumors he’d arranged sex parties in Washington). For days ABC had been leaking out carefully chiseled, fascinating clips from Jackie’s eight-and-a-half hours of audio interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, which had been sealed in the Kennedy Library since they were made, four months after JFK’s assassination.
The special’s deja vu feel was ABC’s own fault. This other liability was not: the television camera was Jackie Kennedy’s unlikely friend. Campaigning for her husband in several languages, or in her historic Tour of the White House (carried by all three TV networks that existed at the time), her glowing smile was ideal for television’s close-up illusion of intimacy, and her awkwardness came across as natural. How could a TV program based on audio tapes compete with that?
It couldn’t, despite the oddity of hearing her always-soft voice and old-time upper-crust pronunciation (“all” becomes “awl”). The TV program was a forced hybrid of audio and still photos, with video filling in the gaps as Sawyer’s commentary created a mini-history lesson. It couldn’t approach the compete interviews – published today as a book with audio CD, it’s already at the top of the Amazon chart – or be as instantly gratifying as those dishy little sound bites from World News or Good Morning America.
What the special did display was myth-making on top of myth-making - Jackie polishing her husband’s legacy, while ABC spiffs up Jackie’s image - with shards of startling truth gleaming through.
Here's a snippet from World News Tonight in which Jackie talks about begging to stay in Washington with her husband during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and about LBJ:
Speaking for the historical record, Jackie was perfectly aware that history is about personality and colorful details as well as dry facts – even if those details are so cutting you’d want them sealed for 50 years. But her candor only goes so far. She touchingly recalls her husband weeping about the lost lives in the Bay of Pigs, but never criticizes his or the military’s handling of the invasion. Remember, this is the woman who invoked the myth of Camelot and made it stick.
Some of the most eye-opening moments zoom by (at least in the televised version). Talking about religion, Jackie says that JFK kneeled by his bed to pray every night but just for a few seconds, like some superstitious gesture. Referring to his death, she says, “I think God’s unjust now”; it’s a heart-wrenching bombshell that lands with the lightest of touches, in a matter-of-fact tone.
It seems positively cruel of Schlesinger to pounce when three-year-old John wanders into the room. “John, what happened to your father?” he asks. The reassuring answer - “He’s gone to heaven,” rather than a shrieking howl – doesn’t make the question less callous.
And the program offers a sense of how hard Jackie struggled to become the good little political wife, a role that didn’t come naturally to a shy intellectual. “Sometimes at the end of the day you just felt one jump away from tears, but you wanted to be so cheerful for Jack when he came home,” she said of her relentless First Lady duties. Determined to raise money for the White House renovation, she drily says, “You’d have 99 cups of tea with some old lady and she’d give you $50.” (That’s another of her verbal tics: referring to herself in the second person.)
Until the program was nearly over, its felt as if ABC had made some devil’s deal for access, never asking the tough questions. Then Sawyer, sitting across the couch from Caroline Kennedy (sparingly interviewed on camera) mentions the well-known stories of all those other women Jackie had to deal with in her complicated marriage. Caroline looks momentarily stunned, then quickly recovers to say that was between her parents. “I wouldn’t be her daughter,” she goes on, if she addressed all that. OK, necessary question, graceful escape. And overall, no myths shattered here.
You can watch more Jackie Kennedy videos, from the special and from the 60's, in this post.