Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy

Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy

To my surprise and delight (and consternation, because there were two other high-demand books on hold for me), my hold request for Historic Conversations came in yesterday afternoon. Although I'm not someone who has an enormous interest in the Kennedys, I was intrigued by the release of a series of interviews granted by one of our most private First Ladies (a term she hated because she thought it sounded like the name of a horse). Beginning in January 1964, mere months after the assassination of President Kennedy, this is a snapshot of Mrs. Kennedy's thoughts, feelings, and reminiscences during a time of intense grief and chaos. Due to the number of CDs (8), the complexity of the companion book (many footnotes), and the sheer number of patrons waiting for their turn, I ended up listening to about 2 1/2 CDs and browsing through the book. Therefore, this is more of an impression of the CDs/book than a full review.

Listeners may be tempted to skip over Caroline Kennedy's lengthy foreword; I would encourage them to not do so. Caroline Kennedy has a somewhat dispassionate delivery (although she clearly adores her mother), yet it's important to realize the history behind the interviews and Kennedy's dilemma over releasing the tapes. Having known the contents of the interviews since her mother's death in 1994, Kennedy was well aware that her mother's comments did not necessarily reflect her later views, and that some comments about prominent figures would incite gossip and criticism (which we have seen since the publication of these recordings). By the time Michael Beschloss begins his own introduction, you may be impatient to skip ahead. For those who only have a basic understanding of the Kennedy presidency (such as me), it's a worthwhile listen.

Finally, we get to the actual interviews! They require a careful listen, as Mrs. Kennedy's voice was famously quiet and breathy. The Schlesinger interviews were being conducted at the same time as she was sitting for interviews with another Kennedy biographer (whom she sued in order to prevent comments being published that she later regretted saying about the assassination) and the Warren commission, and it shows; she sounds quite weary at the beginning. Rather endearingly and movingly, she slips into present tense at times when talking about JFK (I counted three times, which are all in the first two conversations; she doesn't do this in further conversations). John Jr. also appears on the recording, during which Schlesinger asks him what happened to his father ("Well, he's in heaven") and if he remembers his father. John Jr. answers yes and no to two different questions; as he was only three at the time of the recording (he turned three on the day of President Kennedy's funeral), this is entirely understandable (at that age, children will often say what they think the adult wants to hear, and a three year old can't really grasp abstract concepts like "remember"), yet quite sad (in his adulthood, John Jr. did not have many memories of his father or life in the White House). On a lighter note, an amusing moment occurs when she can only bear to whisper about JFK's "stomach problems" (she has to repeat it several times before Schlesinger understands what she is saying).

Jacqueline Kennedy's comments in this interview about Martin Luther King, Jr., Indira Gandhi, and feminism have been well documented in recent articles; it helps to read and listen to the comments in their full text (and to understand why she may feel that way), and also to realize that this is a snapshot at a very specific moment in time. As Caroline Kennedy notes in her foreword, Schlesinger also spends time on issues regarding the Kennedy administration that have not really stood the test of time in terms of historical and cultural significance, and that the listener/reader may wish that he had expounded upon other issues/events. Listeners who rely solely on the recordings and/or don't have a great knowledge about the Kennedy administration may get a bit lost when Jacqueline Kennedy and/or Arthur Schlesinger refer to someone by last name only. This is a remarkable series of interviews granted by a woman who was deeply and famously private, yet had such an enormous regard for history that she saved untold amounts of letters and documents and severely rebuked White House staffers who threw away seemingly meaningless scraps of paper. We now have a more complicated and fuller knowledge of the Kennedys' marriage and the Kennedy administration, so these tapes didn't release any shocking new details; rather, it's a unique and immediate series of recollections conducted under a stressful and chaotic time for the former First Lady, released in time for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration. Well worth your time for history buffs.

1 comment:

Ms. Yingling said...

I have a copy of a book with still from the White House tour Mrs. Kennedy gave. I use it as an example of primary source material. That's the fun of having a 40+ year old library!