Eleanor Clift: Jackie O’s Dark Side

Roundup: Talking About History

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.

People are always going to care about the Kennedys, and as the years stretch on from that mythical time in politics we called Camelot, memories can be tested. How else to explain the widespread reaction to the release of a set of taped interviews recorded 47 years ago by Jackie Kennedy that reveal a woman who sounds more like one of the Real Housewives of (pick your city) than the Jackie we knew, or thought we knew?

Our Jackie is embodied forever in that bloodstained pink suit. She bore the grief of a nation with such dignity, and then guarded her privacy until she died in 1994 at age 64. This Jackie is harshly judgmental, dispensing petty opinions that say as much about her as they do the objects of her disdain. She calls Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “a phony” who the FBI had discovered was arranging trysts with women even as he proclaimed himself a man of the cloth. She describes Lady Bird Johnson as so deferential to her husband “she was sort of like a trained hunting dog,” and she denigrates her brother-in-law, Edward M. Kennedy, for being the best politician in the family. “Jack never—he never said, ‘Hi fella,’ or put his fat palm under your armpit, or, you know, any of that sort of business. It was embarrassing to him.”

These juicy tidbits and many others emerge from eight and a half hours of an oral-history project that the former first lady participated in with her trusted friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.  President Kennedy had been assassinated just months earlier, and Jackie, still in the depths of grief, lashed out in a way that reveals the anger she must have felt at her husband’s presidency, and their dreams, being so tragically aborted. ABC's Diane Sawyer is anchoring a special on the new material Tuesday night.

Daughter Caroline Kennedy made the decision to publish the tapes in a book (Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy), explaining in the forward, according to an account in The New York Times, that she wanted her mother’s perspective to be part of the public and scholarly debate. In fairness, a reading of the transcribed tapes in full should help to put the gossipy excerpts in context. Still, it is jarring to anyone who remembers the baby-voiced, breathy Jackie, who was barely 30 when she became first lady, to believe this is the same woman...

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