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Caroline Kennedy Discusses Her Mother's Role In Preserving U.S. History

This article is more than 11 years old.
John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic presidential nominee, is shown with his wife Jacqueline and daughter Caroline outside their home in Hyannisport in 1960. (AP)
John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic presidential nominee, is shown with his wife Jacqueline and daughter Caroline outside their home in Hyannisport in 1960. (AP)

Caroline Kennedy made an appearance at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston Monday night to discuss the recently released book and recordings of her mother's 1964 interviews with historian Arthur Schlesinger. Caroline, who approved their release and wrote the book's introduction, had been scheduled to speak at the library last month upon their publication, but the conversation was postponed after the sudden death of her cousin, Kara Kennedy.

We met with Caroline at the library and asked her if she'd been surprised at her mother's candor in these interviews, which has made some headlines:

Caroline Kennedy: No. I mean that was the point of the oral history, so I think she took it very seriously. She was a great student of history, she read a lot of history, she read a lot of memoirs, she understood that the value of this is in being honest and that's the only way people later on can try to figure out and put together the pieces of how history is made so I think that she deserves a lot of credit for being honest and I think it probably took a lot of courage for her to do that.

Let's go back 50 years to 1961, an incredibly dynamic first year for the family: the president takes office; delivers his first State of the Union speech; forms the Peace Corps; after astronaut Alan Shepard becomes the first American in outer space, the president announced his commitment to put a man on the moon within the decade. But there was also the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous invasion of Cuba and civil rights violence exploded in the South. The tumult of the time resulted in some remarkable moments on the recordings. For example, after the Bay of Pigs, your mother talked about how the president cried in the White House bedroom, head in hands.

Jackie Kennedy: And I've only seen him cry about three times — about twice the winter he was sick in the hospital, you know, just out of sheer discouragement. He wouldn't weep but some tears would fill his eyes and roll down his cheek.

Well obviously that was a very painful time for him, I think they were actually in Virginia for the weekend and that was part of the problem. I think that's what's interesting, that she goes into that the head of the CIA was away on his honeymoon and they couldn't get in touch with him and my father was out in Virginia and he didn't have access to the kind of communication that might have made a difference — he thought, perhaps, maybe, a lot of hindsight, second guessing. So I think that what it really does is bring you back to a moment in time without such 20/20 hindsight as we have now and obviously she was doing the interviews three years later but still she really manages to create this sense of uncertainty and fear and difficulty in making the decision and then the regrets afterwards.

On marriage, she presents herself as a very traditional wife, insisting that she got her opinions from her husband. Michael Beschloss, the historian, has said that he thinks we should all take that with a warehouse of salt. Did you?

Did I think we should take it with a warehouse of salt? Well I think it's so interesting because, you know, those were probably not uncommon views at the time but I think if you look at what she did and what she said, like he says, they're not the same thing. And of course as you hear throughout the tape, she certainly has plenty of her own opinions.

Some of your mother's comments took people by surprise. She called Martin Luther King Jr. a "terrible man." I'm wondering if you worry the recordings will change the public opinions of your mother as an almost impeccably dignified and graceful women. Do you think that's happened in the weeks since the tapes have come out?

Well I think the reporting has been incomplete. And I think over time it will become more complete, I hope. And I think the historical community understands what's going on here. I mean, what was going on and what she's referring to with Martin Luther King is about the effort to smear him as a communist by J. Edgar Hoover and the effort to get him to disassociate himself from the people who Hoover believed were communists in his inner circle.

So that was a very complicated set of relationships because obviously my father and Uncle Bobby were very concerned about the success of and supportive of the civil rights movement and they didn't want anything to jeopardize that. So it makes it much more interesting when you see what everybody was up against.

And then obviously the other comment is related to something that she was told about my father's funeral. And I think that to say that he was a "terrible man" without saying that she had been told that he was laughing that they almost dropped the coffin, I think, doesn't really give the flavor of the story. So even if people decide to change their mind about her, at least they'll understand the basis of why they're doing it or what she thought. So I think you really need to read the whole thing and then make up your mind.

The interviews were recorded not long at all after your dad was assassinated. Do you think her grief influenced the conversations?

I do, very much so. Well I think there's an overall tone of sadness and I think some of the opinions are probably sharper than they otherwise might have been.

Can you give us an example?

No I think it just pervades the whole thing but I think it creates a mood for me that is reminiscent of that time when everybody was obviously grief-stricken and very sad.

So you think the interviews, the oral history, might have been different, then, had they taken place later, a year or two later?

Well the whole point of an oral history is to capture recollections while they're fresh. So obviously you're making tradeoffs and balances, and you're trading vividness and recent memory for impressions that might change upon reflection.

So it's really important that people understand what an oral history is. I don't think it would have changed in any really significant way, but I think different things might have come to the fore or been highlighted. There's a lot of questions that aren't asked, there's a lot of questions that would be differently asked today or differently asked a few years later, so it's hard to really speculate on that.

This program aired on October 4, 2011.

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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