Jacqueline Kennedy's Audiotapes Describe 'Our Happiest Years'

Jacqueline Kennedy's newly revealed audiotapes of the Kennedy "Camelot."

September 8, 2011, 8:57 PM

Sept. 12, 2011— -- 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.

Watch the two-hour Diane Sawyer Special "Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words" Tuesday 13 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

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.

"When it all turned [out] so fantastically, he said, 'Well, if anyone's going to shoot me, this would be the day they should do it,' " she said.

President Kennedy comes across as a doting father who reserved time for his small children even during periods of high stress at the White House. She recalled that the president tried to take a 45-minute nap every day at lunch time, and would change into pajamas like his idol, Winston Churchill. He was a voracious reader who brought books with him into the bathtub, and even tried to read at meals and while doing his tie.

Before coming to the White House, she said, he would kneel on his bed to say prayers. As president, he occasionally slipped into a confession booth in Palm Beach, Fla., "like anyone would," she said, with a Secret Service agent holding a place in line for him and the priest never knowing he'd just had the president in the confessional.

The tapes also peel back a curtain on a first lady deeply engaged in her husband's presidency in ways both subtle and overt.

And, in tapes interrupted occasionally by the playful banter of 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr., they reveals a young widow who was working to craft the "Camelot" legacy as she adjusted to her sudden role as a 34-year-old single parent of two young children.

"If all this had to happen, I just wish he could have seen some more good things come in, that he worked so hard for. The tax bill, the civil rights bill, the economy up so high," she said.

"He really did so much. There wasn't that much more to do, except it would have jelled."

At the time of his death, she recalled, President Kennedy had begun plotting his 1964 reelection race. He was planning a presidential trip to Appalachia to highlight rural poverty, plus what would have been a history-making Cold War trip to the Soviet Union.

He planned to oust J. Edgar Hoover from the FBI in a second term, she recalled. That was among several things "he was going to do this time," but "they've all been done the wrong way" under President Johnson, she said.

Indeed, Kennedy had already given at least some thought as to who the Democratic nominee should be in 1968. Mrs. Kennedy said he felt strongly that Lyndon Johnson should not be president, a sentiment he shared with his brother, Robert, among others.

"He didn't like that idea that Lyndon would go on and be president because he was worried for the country," Mrs. Kennedy said of her husband.

At an earlier time, Mrs. Kennedy recalled how the Cold War crisis set the Kennedy presidency off-course. When President Kennedy learned of the failed invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs, less than three months into his presidency in 1961, he returned to the White House living quarters to weep, she said.

"He came back over to the White House to his bedroom and he started to cry, just with me. You know, just for one -- just put his head in his hands and sort of wept," she said. "It was so sad, because all his first 100 days and all his dreams, and then this awful thing to happen. And he cared so much."

By her own telling, Mrs. Kennedy was more involved in her husband's politics and his presidency than many historians have realized.

The president relied on her for private counsel, and her interests and passions shaped his relationships with world figures whom she dazzled, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Charles de Gaulle to Nikita Khrushchev.

After meeting Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna in June 1961 -- a tense meeting where the Soviet premier tried to bully the young president who was weakened by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion -- the president confided his private worries.

"It's going to be a cold winter," she recalled him telling her. "And he said that in really scared -- then I just think you'd seen just naked, brutal, ruthless power… Khrushchev thought that -- saw that perhaps he could -- thought he could do what he wanted with Jack."

But when Mrs. Kennedy chatted with Khrushchev, it was about a novel she'd recently read about the Ukraine. She recalls how her forced conversation with the Khrushchev led her to offhandedly ask for a puppy from a litter one of the Soviets' famous space dogs had just had.

President Kennedy was more than a little surprised when "this poor terrified puppy" suddenly was delivered to the Oval Office, delivered by the Soviet ambassador to the United States, she said.

Yet for all her involvement inside her husband's White House, Mrs. Kennedy espoused views toward marriage and gender politics that seem dated to modern ears. In fact, she'd live long enough to reverse some of those views quite thoroughly, as historian Michael Beschloss notes in the book's introduction.

"I think women should never be in politics. We're just not suited to it," she told Schlesinger at one point.

Schlesinger chose not to ask Jacqueline Kennedy about the events in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Those questions were left to author William Manchester, who was writing an authorized book about the killing, and the Warren Commission, the presidential inquiry into the assassination.

But Mrs. Kennedy twice brought the assassination up on her own in reference to a recent Supreme Court ruling protecting free speech. The case, she said, reminded her of ads in Dallas newspapers around the time of Kennedy's assassination. One had a picture of the president and the text, "Wanted for Treason."

"When you think, ads like that in the paper was partly what killed Jack," Mrs. Kennedy said.

She voiced particular frustration that one of President Kennedy's own court appointees, Arthur Goldberg, took a position to support unfettered free speech in that case.

The tapes provide an unvarnished view of some of the world's leading mid-century figures, with biting assessments of, among others, Martin Luther King Jr., and two other first ladies, Lady Bird Johnson and Mamie Eisenhower.

She recalls her husband's disappointment when he finally met his hero, Winston Churchill, as a senator in the late 1950s.

"Jack had always wanted to meet Churchill. Well, the poor man was really quite ga-ga then," she said. "I felt so sorry for Jack that evening because he was meeting his hero, only he met him too late."

Her own hero, French President Charles de Gaulle, she ultimately found to be a "spiteful man."

Mrs. Kennedy also described a president who coped with wrenching back pain for much of his adult life.

"Jack could never touch his toes. He couldn't get his hands down any farther than his knees standing up," she said. "He could never put on his shoes before -- sort of bend over that far."

"Once I asked him -- I think this is rather touching -- if he could have one wish, what would it be? In other words, you know, looking back on his life, and he said, 'I wish I had more good times.'"

But with a new treatment regimen in the White House, she said, "He was never in better health or spirits than all his White House years."

That left her hopeful for a healthy post-presidency: "It just made me so sad, because Jack could have had his happiest years later."

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