Nearly a half-century after the death of President John F. Kennedy, there remains a fascination with him and his family. The young Massachusetts senator won a narrow victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, and his brief administration has become known to many as “Camelot,” a reference to the verve, idealism and sense of idyllic happiness that surrounded his time in office and the mood of the country at that time.
Part of the mystique was Kennedy’s young wife, Jacqueline, who displayed admirable courage during his assassination and went on to capture the public’s imagination, whether it was through her controversial marriage to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis or her decision to immerse herself in the workaday world of New York book editing. Now, a series of interviews she did shortly after she was widowed are creating new interest -- and new controversy, in light of the harsh assessments she provided about a number of visible public figures of the time.
The seven-part oral interview, conducted by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., had been kept private for almost 50 years at Mrs. Kennedy’s request. It’s now being published as a book and audio recording, with a forward by Caroline Kennedy, her daughter. The former First Lady’s opinions are surprisingly candid, one of the most interesting being the “egomaniac” term she hung on French President Charles DeGaulle, a description that few who knew him would argue. She also called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a “phony” and said Indira Gandhi, who would go on to become prime minister of India, was “a real prune.” She had equally harsh words for Lyndon Johnson, who became president upon John Kennedy’s assassination.
One of the most interesting points in looking at the interviews comes from presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who scoffs at Mrs. Kennedy’s claim that she got her opinions from her husband. Beschloss points out that those who were disliked by Mrs. Kennedy often didn’t do well in the Kennedy administration, while those she favored flourished. Whether she reflected only her husband’s opinions, or helped shape them, is a matter that has gone to the grave with both of them.
In any instance, the book provides fresh insights into an endlessly fresh subject, and will no doubt engender a great deal of discussion about what really happened back during Camelot.