Finally, we can hear — in her own voice, in her own words — what it was like to be Jackie Kennedy in the wake of unspeakable grief.
What a bold and generous gift to the American people.
What an unsettling development for those who want to cling to an earlier, easier version of one of America’s most memorable first ladies.
Four months after her husband’s violent death, Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to record more than eight hours of interviews about her life with John F. Kennedy.
The recordings were sealed in a vault for nearly 50 years.
This month, her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, released the unedited conversations, on CDs and in book form, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her father’s presidency.
Until now, the persistent narrative about first lady Jackie Kennedy has cast her as a whispery waft of eye candy, with impeccable taste in fashion and design and a sideshow talent for foreign languages.
Now, with the release of these recordings, some want to recast her as a shrew.
We have such demanding expectations of the women we will never be.
The New York Times got an early grab at the recordings before the official release last Wednesday. That single story, published last Monday, included snippets of her conversation. This was enough to trigger apoplexy.
Hours of reflection by a 34-year-old widow have been reduced to sound bites of bad behavior. Many of the early verdicts, rendered without making the effort to listen to the tapes or read the transcripts, are scornful.
Repeatedly, Jackie is criticized for finding no fault with her husband, whose assassination she witnessed only four months earlier. Numerous stories recount her sniping at Martin Luther King Jr., delivered in the wake of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s questionable claims to her and Bobby Kennedy that the civil rights activist spoke disdainfully about JFK’s funeral.
Other frequent mentions: Jackie called Indira Gandhi “a bitter prune” and Charles de Gaulle an “egomaniac.” She declared women unfit for politics, too.
Echoing many who rushed to uninformed judgment, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote, “So far in these tapes, Jackie doesn’t sound all that nice.”
It is a long-held tradition in American journalism to measure political wives by their usefulness to their husbands’ ambitions. We also tend to depict politicians as either heroes or charlatans, but versions of both often reside in the same human being. In politics, even the most principled philosopher must perform at the circus. The wife is a smiling sidekick.
The supposed shock over Jackie’s less-than-Stepford responses to Schlesinger’s often probing questions reflects a stubborn commitment to the stereotype. As a columnist married to a U.S. senator, I am disappointed, but not terribly surprised, that in 2011 we still struggle so with the notion that a politician’s wife might have opinions of her own, and that not all of them are gracious.
I am also grateful to Jackie Kennedy, and her daughter, for this attempt to whittle away at one of the most enduring icons of impossible standards. What a relief to discover that she was as human as the rest of us.
Jackie Kennedy was smart and in love with her husband, despite his deep flaws. She was also capable of making withering observations about the people trying to hold sway in his life. She sounds like many bright women I know who are married to powerful men. I laughed out loud when she described how some cabinet members and senators never stop talking about themselves.
She is far more nuanced than the quick jabs going viral on the Internet. One of her opinions — that women are not suited for politics — has been quoted out of context. Schlesinger asked about her husband’s efforts to avoid permanent grudges, quoting the adage that, in politics, “there are no permanent friendships or alliances, there are only permanent interests.”
Jackie’s full response, as transcribed in the book:
“Yeah, but he never got — I mean, I’d get terribly emotional about anyone, whether it was a politician or a 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 mean, how could you if you — if he’d gotten so mad at all these people, then you may need to work with them again later. So, it’s the only way to be effective — which is one reason I think women should never be in politics. We’re just not suited to it.”
Surely, we disagree today with her conclusions, but her broader point — that women tend to take personally the attacks on those we love — still resonates.
Caroline Kennedy knew that her mother’s opinions would spark furious debate.
As she wrote in her introduction to the book, “(I)f my mother had reviewed the transcripts, I have no doubt she would have made revisions. ... It isn’t surprising that there are some statements she would later have considered too personal, and others too harsh. ...
(H)er views evolved over time.”
Still, Caroline trusted the American public, if not the pundits, to appreciate this richer portrait of her mother.
“As her child, it has sometimes been hard for me to reconcile that most people can identify my mother instantly, but they really don’t know her at all. ...
(T)hey don’t always appreciate her intellectual curiosity, her sense of the ridiculous, her sense of adventure, or her unerring sense of what was right.”
Sounds like women living anonymously all around the world.
Email Connie Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org.