Jackie: In her own words

Jacqueline Kennedy was the consummate presidential consort – clever, stylish, loyal. But tapes of her candid thoughts about political figures, about to be heard for the first time, make for illuminating, unsettling listening, says David Usborne

It is a country worn down by present dangers (the economy) and exhausted by commemorations of grief (9/11). Around the corner is an election where retrenchment and lost ambition will trump hope. Oh, for the days of... what or who? Oh, for the bright beacon days – of course – of Camelot.

Tonight a wish will be granted by the fairy godmother of the nation. Imagine she has dropped in and asked: "Which figure in your recent history, taken too young, should I restore to you, at least in voice, to give you distraction?" So some might answer Elvis or Tupac Shakur, but it's a decent bet that many will have looked up and said Jackie. Give us Jackie again.

And presto! With gratitude in truth to Caroline Kennedy, Americans will stay in tonight to watch as ABC News pushes the play button on tapes of a seven-part conversation the former First Lady had with the historian and former aide to her husband, Arthur Schlesinger, in 1964. It will be a Disney ride aboard a spinning teacup – gilt-edged like the dinner service she introduced to the White House – to a heroic past of glamour, to when the Kennedys were America's royalty.

There is a health warning posted before we board. Passengers may experience brief periods of vertigo. The tapes, made four months after JFK's assassination in Dallas, do offer confirmation of a wife unstintingly loyal to the husband she has lost and the father of her children. But they swerve alarmingly – or deliciously – when Mrs Kennedy turns to describing characters she didn't quite approve of.

The trailers for the tapes – The New York Times boasted its own synopsis yesterday, and ABC primed its ratings numbers with a few juicy audio excerpts on its news bulletins – read like those saucy teasers in the tacky tabloids. Which women's rights pioneer did Mrs Kennedy dismiss as a "lesbian"? Which American civil rights movement icon did she consider a womanising "phoney", and which leader of a European nation an "egomaniac"? And what scared her husband most about Lyndon Johnson?

Maybe it was the skill of Mr Schlesinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of American public affairs who died in 2007, that drew Ms Kennedy into becoming, well, a bit bitchy. Just about everyone she dishes dirt on has a legacy, by the way, rather more substantial than hers. Did she really say that about Indira Gandhi?

Theoretically, we should be hearing none of this quite yet. When Jacqueline Kennedy agreed to give what is, all the juicy bits aside, a unique oral history, she demanded that they be kept under lock and key until 50 years after her death. The guardian of the tapes was Caroline. And she, it seems, is the one who concluded that they deserved unveiling before then. The deal that was struck was simple: a book and accompanying audio discs would be released on 14 September 2011, which is tomorrow. And ABC would be tied in to give it maximum exposure.

That this was coming has been known for some time. Different news organisations in recent months have unleashed nuggets of speculation of the "explosive" revelations. We would hear, they said, of how she struck back at her husband for his serial infidelities by revealing details of her own love affairs. That does not seem to be the case. Nor do we hear much of what some expected from Mrs Kennedy on her alleged distrust of the conclusions of the investigation into her husband's assassination. Indeed, it appears that JFK's death is not discussed at all.

History, meanwhile, is not likely to undergo much rewriting because of what she is heard saying, although scholars will linger over her description of Johnson and the concerns JFK and his brother, Bobby, had about him possibly becoming President, which of course he did through circumstances neither could have predicted. They were thinking of 1968, when JFK would have finished his second term.

"Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?" she quotes her husband saying of his then Vice-President. "He didn't like that idea that Lyndon would go on and be President because he was worried for the country. Bobby told me he'd had some discussions with him. I forget exactly how they were planning or who they had in mind. It wasn't Bobby, but somebody. Do something to name someone else in '68."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most difficult moments of her husband's truncated presidency – the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and then the Cuban missile crisis – elicited some of the most touching passages. The former prompted Kennedy to cry in the private quarters of the White House. The long missiles drama was the time when the wife knew that her place was nowhere but beside her husband.

"That's the time I have been closest to him," she is heard saying, in her breathy tones. "And I never left the house or saw the children, and when he came home, if it was a sleep or a nap I would sleep with him. I said: 'Please don't send me to Camp David, me and the children, please don't send me anywhere. If anything happens we are all going to stay right here with you.' You know I said even if there is no room in the bomb shelter in the White House, which I saw, I said, 'Please... I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too – than live without you'."

The context is important, of course. Though in later years she was to marry her shipping tycoon and would eventually live a private life in Manhattan as a publisher and champion of charitable causes before dying of lymphoma in 1994, Mrs Kennedy appears content to be a woman and a wife more from the Mad Men era.

At one point she describes her marriage as "rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic", dedicated to preserving "a climate of affection and comfort and détente" in the White House. At the time of the making of the tapes she was still in "the extreme stages of grief," as Caroline points out in an introduction to the book. Moreover, she knew she was making an oral history and saying ill of her husband would never have done.

Of others, she was entirely less circumspect to a degree that she must have looked back at with a certain flushing of cheeks. Thus Mrs Gandhi was in her books "a real prune – bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman". It was the French President Charles De Gaulle whom she considered an "egomaniac". She is heard attributing to her husband doubts about the sincerity at times of Franklin D Roosevelt: "Charlatan is an unfair word," he allegedly said of the former wartime President, but "he did an awful lot for effect". Better perhaps she had kept her opinion of Martin Luther King Jr to herself. He is the "phoney" whom, she suggested, had been caught while under electronic surveillance – he was not an FBI favourite either – arranging romantic liaisons.

Those women she dismissed almost childishly as sexually suspect were Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of the president of South Vietnam, and Clare Boothe Luce, a former member of Congress. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were lesbians," she is heard whispering in conspiratorial manner.

But there is mirth in the tapes too. She is heard recalling trying to impress President Sukarno of Indonesia by having a copy of a new book about his personal art collection open on a table in the White House so he would notice during a meeting with her and her husband. Only too late did she see that his taste ran mostly to a kind of portrait of a woman "naked to the waist with a hibiscus in her hair". She added: "I caught Jack's eye, and we were trying not to laugh at each other." Of Sukarno, she concluded, "he had a sort of lecherous look" and "left a bad taste in your mouth".

And if Ms Kennedy steers clear of her husband's own weaknesses toward the fairer sex, she does offer other insights, like the fact that generally he rose at 7.45am to be read his daily briefs, put on pyjamas for his afternoon naps, went through the most perfunctory rituals of prayer at night, kneeling on the mattress of their bed, and never grew out of having toys in the bath, something that greatly amused officials visiting the private quarters. "All along his tub were floating animals, dogs and pink pigs and things. And you'd hear this roar," of laughter from behind the locked door, she says. Every First Lady evokes curiosity in most Americans. What influences did they have? How did they tolerate the pomp, even the boredom? Nancy was a possibly dark force behind Ronny's Oval Office desk, even offering him guidance from readers of the stars. That she was unutterably devoted to her husband has never been in doubt. One modern First Lady had troubles with drink, another with an intern who got altogether too close to her husband. Anyone watching Michelle Obama in the gallery of Congress last Tuesday as her husband unveiled his American Jobs Act to a joint session of Congress may have been struck by how stern she appeared. Is someone making tapes of her true feelings?

In talking to her historian friend, Mrs Kennedy pauses to note that when her husband was seeking election, some in the electorate had particular doubts about her, but that much of the popular scepticism had evaporated when she found her feet and most notably after she had taken television viewers into the White House to see the style she had introduced to it.

"Suddenly, everything that had been a liability before – your hair, that you spoke French, that you didn't just adore to campaign, and you didn't bake bread with flour up to your arms – you know, everybody thought I was a snob and hated politics," had just gone away, she said. "I was so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together, that he could be proud of me then. Because it made him so happy – it made me so happy. So those were our happiest years."

The television audience for her White House tour was 56 million, by the way. She may not do quite so well today, so many generations later. But the number will be high for the ABC channel in a nation tired of bad news and ready from some Camelot relief.

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