Months after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, his wife Jacqueline agreed to make a very private record of her recollections of their life together and the Kennedy years. She chose the historian and Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. as her interlocutor for a series of interviews that remained sealed until her daughter Caroline Kennedy published them this year in Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. The transcripts have proved to be a trove for casual Kennedyphiles and serious historians alike, providing an intimate glimpse into the period and stirring controversy over negative comments Mrs. Kennedy had made about the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson. Caroline Kennedy recently sat down with Robert Schlesinger, Arthur's son and an editor at U.S. News, to discuss their parents' chats, the value and limitations of oral histories, and again hearing voices from the past. Excerpts:
My father was a bit surprised and flattered that your mother chose him to conduct these interviews. Do you have any sense of why she chose him?
She wanted to do it with him because she was doing it for history and she wanted to do it with someone who understood that. And obviously she felt a connection with him.
It's an amazing—for better and worse—look into where your mother was and her insights into that moment before history has had a chance to make its judgments.
Right. It's a time capsule, a snapshot. Because there are so many things about it that are so striking in their either old-fashionedness or moment-in-timeness, I think, that it does bring to the fore a lot of the issues about what is an oral history, what are the strengths and limitations of it. It's really something that's supposed to capture the recollections while they're fresh. But also it's only a human reaction to the story in the way of narrative and it's got to be considered in connection with the underlying documentary record and things like that.
Where do you think its greatest value lies?
When I listen and read it, there's a lot of things that are not said, or are things that she evolved in her views. And I can see this emotional framework that she's in, which is really right after my father's death, so it's colored a little bit by that. But I think it's really valuable in bringing history to life and bringing the personalities to life and showing people these are human beings and how history is made. And you really feel like you're listening in on a conversation that's incredibly interesting about people that you've heard about, and a lot of the details that fall away as history gets written come back to life in this.
It's remarkable that she can talk at such length and in such detail so soon after her husband is killed.
It absolutely is. It must have taken a lot of steeling herself to do it. Today people write much more cautious memoirs, so I think she deserves a lot of credit for really making the effort to be as honest as possible.
When my father's Journals were published, part of the joy for me was feeling like I had him back for a few days. Did you feel the same, reading and listening to these?
Yeah, absolutely. I had read them a couple of times before I listened to them. And I really felt like I didn't even need to listen to hear it. I could imagine her saying what I was reading just because of the rhythm of her voice. So in that way it was very much like you describe. So that was a really nice thing for me.
Do any moments particularly stand out as being evocative in that way?
Probably for me the ones that I respond to are the ones about family life. Whenever I'm mentioned. [Laughs.] Those are the really excellent passages. So that's obviously very precious. Some of the things when she talks about people that were more a part of my childhood that I remember. One of the [other] most interesting things was that he just asks one question about Vietnam and then moves right on. Talk about a moment in time.
It just wasn't an issue then.
Yeah. What's not talked about is almost as interesting as what is talked about.
What surprised you about your mother, or what did you learn about her?
It wasn't a revelation in any way, it was more like a reconnection. She was very much the person I remember. I can tell that she was sadder than she was later on, but it wasn't so different.