Speaking just months after her husband's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy looked back on her time with her husband in the White House as "our happiest years," the time that she and John F. Kennedy were closest, with an extraordinary personal and political partnership thriving during the high-pressure thousand days of the Kennedy presidency.
Those recollections were part of a series of conversations the widowed first lady recorded in early 1964, in oral history interviews that mark the most detailed and personal comments she ever made on the Kennedy White House years. The tapes were kept under seal by the Kennedy Library until this month.
ABC News' Diane Sawyer will host a prime-time, two-hour special based on the tapes Tuesday, Sept. 13, featuring exclusive, never-before-heard extended audio of Mrs. Kennedy's oral history, rare photographs, plus an exclusive interview with Caroline Kennedy, the child of Jacqueline and John Kennedy.
The audio and transcripts of the interviews, conducted by friend and longtime Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., are being released in book form this month in "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy."
The tapes are illuminating not just for the words but for how they're spoken, the distinctive, breathy voice – at times wistful, at times wickedly irreverent – revealing a new dimension of woman who carefully kept herself out of the public eye. With sounds of matches striking, ice cubes clinking, and even her children playing in the background, it's a rare snapshot into the life and private recollections of Jacqueline Kennedy.
The recordings also provide an intimate portrait of the Kennedy presidency at some of its most tense moments.
In the depths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the country fearing nuclear war, Mrs. Kennedy said she pleaded with her husband not to send her and their two young children away from the White House grounds.
"Please don't send me anywhere. If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you," she recalled telling the president.
She said that even if there wasn't enough room in the White House bomb shelter, she and the children would stay by his side.
"Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens -- you know -- but I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too -- than live without you."
Mrs. Kennedy recalled brinksmanship with the Soviet Union that brought President Kennedy to tears by his wife's side; revealed startling details about Kennedy's relationship with his vice president, Lyndon Johnson; and related haunting conversations with a president who mused openly about his own possible assassination.
In one scene recounted by Mrs. Kennedy, historian David Donald spoke to the president and a collection of friends and aides about the Lincoln presidency at the White House in 1962. President Kennedy was the first to break the silence with a question, she recalled.
" 'Do you think' - it's the one thing that was on his mind -- 'would Lincoln have been as great a President if he'd lived?'" she said. "And Donald, really by going round and round, had agreed with him that Lincoln, you know, it was better -- was better for Lincoln that he died when he did."
Mrs. Kennedy said she thought back on that episode months later, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when her husband could relish a victory in the stand-off that almost led to nuclear war.