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Barbara A. Perry, Ph.D.
Author and Professor of Government, Sweet Briar College
"Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier"
December 14, 2004

Mrs. Kennedy was in the White House with her husband just a little over a thousand days. She never wrote a memoir or an autobiography. She gave very few interviews and she was a very private person, so my question is why does Mrs. Kennedy and I will call her that today rather than Mrs. Onassis, because I'm studying here when she was Mrs. Kennedy. Why does Jacqueline Kennedy continue to maintain such a hold on the American imagination?

I was reminded of this just mostly recently. I was named to a ABA Committee on Public Education and I went to Chicago to the ABA Headquarters and the first day I was there I woke up and there was the Chicago Tribune and there was a picture of Mrs. Kennedy and President Kennedy on the front page. That's because, unbeknownst to me, that exhibit that you saw at the Corcoran and that had been at the Kennedy Library and at the Metropolitan in New York was now at the Field Museum and I mentioned it to one of the staffers of the American Bar Association. She said, oh yes, you know, it's also being sponsored by Marshall Fields so when you go Marshall Fields, get your Jacqueline Kennedy shopping bag, so, of course, this gave me another excuse to go shopping at Marshall Fields, buy by yet more Frango mints and get my free Jacqueline Kennedy shopping bag, so she's everywhere. I cannot escape her. She's definitely everywhere.

Examples abound even aside from these most recent ones. At the tenth anniversary of her death which was this past May-- Much to my chagrin I should say there were four new books about her and I list what they were about. One on her time in the White House with her husband, Sally Bedell Smith's book a bit more scandalous than mine, I should add. One of the last months of her life. One on her manners and etiquette, and then another, a collection of her quotations. Also, if you noticed, at the Reagan funeral, that week-long commemoration of President Reagan and it was televised so extensively, many references to Mrs. Kennedy because she created, of course, the modern state presidential funeral and so there were videos of that funeral of President Kennedy in November 1963 complete with little John, Jr., doing the salute to his father's casket. I also was sent by several people this December's Architectural Digest. It had a cover story on Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Reagan and their re-doing of the White House, their re-decoration of the White House, so actually she's now being compared to Mrs. Reagan in a host of ways.

This last bulleted item under examples is an anecdote that I wanted to share with you from a Sweet Briar alumna. About a year and a half ago I was in Washington for a Sweet Briar dinner. It was at the Mayflower Hotel. It was a very beautiful setting and the woman I was seated next to happened to mention to me that her husband had been in the Foreign Service. I said, oh, where were you posted during his career and she mentioned several cities, including Vienna. I said, oh, I love Vienna. When were you there and she said the early '60s, so of course I said to her, well, were you there when the Kennedy's came for the Khrushchev summit in 1961 and she said, as a matter of fact we were. I said, well, what was that like.

Well, she went on to describe an anecdote that was so beautiful that I used it to open the book and it was this. She said, we went to Mass on the Sunday morning that the Kennedys were in Vienna. It was at St. Stephen's Cathedral, the beautiful Gothic cathedral in the old city of Vienna and she said we sat in the back but she said as the Kennedys came in, the entire cathedral was filled with Viennese and the Kennedys began to march up the aisle and she said, oh, they were just so stunningly captivating. Mrs. Kennedy was so beautiful. Her hair, her skin, everything about her. This Sweet Briar alum said I had the sense that the people wanted to applaud. These people were so stunningly beautiful, but she said that wasn't done, of course, in a religious setting such as that, so she said the Viennese took out their white handkerchiefs and they waved them as the Kennedys processed up the aisle and then this woman grew somber and she said, oh, it was such a tragedy when we lost them because we had such hope when they were in the White House and it was such a tragedy in November '63 when we lost the President and she almost had tears in her eyes and so it just occurred to me that all these many years later, 40 years later, that this woman has still such an impact on the American imagination.

Well, I wanted to talk today, and in this book particularly, about political symbolism and so I use a definition very frequently from the late political scientist Barbara Hinckley. Hinckely said that a political symbol conveys a larger range of meaning, typically with emotional, moral or psychological impact. This larger meaning need not be independently true, but will tap ideas people want to believe in as true and to me, this summarizes Mrs. Kennedy's use of political symbols and I will share with you today a number of photographs that I think will indicate that to you.

The first one obviously is this one of youth and her appearance as such a young and vibrant woman. In addition to that, and those of you who have seen the exhibit of her fashions, will know that the very fact that she dressed in such a youthful manner made her different from other first ladies. So this was a luncheon in Mexico. The President of Mexico is to Mrs. Kennedy's right, her husband to her left. She's wearing a pink sleeveless, something I'm not sure that Mamie or Bess or Eleanor would've done, to an official function, a sleeveless suit in this fushia pink with a fushia pink straw hat to top it. In addition to that, that's the superficial. Here Mrs. Kennedy was speaking in Spanish. She was fluent in French and Spanish, more fluent in French I would say. Those who heard her said that her Spanish was spoken with a French accent, but nevertheless, she had far greater facility in languages than her husband so that in and of itself was quite a coup for her.

I want to go on to the next category now of Mrs. Kennedy's restoration and redecoration of the White House. This was her favorite room in the White House. This, of course, is the Red Room. This is a very sad occasion. This is several days after her husband's death and she's greeting foreign dignitaries. The reason I show it at this point in the discussion is that, again, it was her favorite room and the first one that was completed in her redecoration process, but this is one of her most brilliant contributions to political symbolism and to her husband's presidency because she was able then to use the White House as a stage, not only for herself and her First Ladyship, but for her husband's presidency and the reason that I list her as a cold warrior, not that she was giving Jack advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but rather that she joined in his Cold War rhetoric to say to the Soviet Union, look, we have a beautiful history, too, and more important, to say to what we then called Third World countries and Third World leaders, come join us, come join this beautiful history that we can represent here in the White House and around our nation.

So one of those letters that was at the exhibit was a note that she wrote to Henry du Pont, the founder of Winterthur Museum in Delaware, the man, the expert on decorative arts in the United States. He led the fine arts commission that put together the redecoration of the White House. Mrs. Kennedy wrote to him in 1963 and she said, Henry, we must do something about Blair House. She said it is so ugly. The wallpaper is peeling off the walls. It has ugly old televisions in the rooms. It has bent coat hangers. She said here we're bringing these Third World leaders to stay here and she said they've probably just come from the Kremlin where they've dined on gold plates and they then come to the Blair House. They're not going to choose us. They're going to choose the Soviets. Perhaps this is a tad too simplistic in discussing the Cold War, but this was her concept of political symbolism.

Not only did she redecorate and in her view, restore the White House, she also founded the White House Historical Association. It's hard for us to believe because now all three of the branches have a historical association or society. None of the branches had such a thing at the time, so Mrs. Kennedy founded the White House Historical Association. Congress founded their historical association one year later. It took another decade for the Supreme Court to found its historical society as it calls it, but she certainly was on the cutting edge there.

She also as part of this restoration project worked with and collaborated closely with the National Geographic Society in putting together a guidebook on the White House, one that cost only a dollar at the time. She said when she was a little girl and she came to the White House, first of all, she said it was dull and dreary. Second, there was nothing to take away to read more about the history, something that a child could comprehend and be proud of, so she worked very closely with the Geographic Society to put together a colorful short booklet on the history of the White House and later expanded that to another booklet that she worked very closely with Arthur Schlessinger on on a history of the presidency and the individual presidents so we can give her credit for that. In addition then to spreading the word about the White House, she also made money for the White House Historical Association through the selling of that booklet.
This photograph I tie to the state entertaining that the Kennedys did. The Kennedys had 16 state dinners. Anybody know how many this Bush administration has had in their almost four years in office? Two. Now, I grant you, post-9/11, a different time. Security matters: paramount. White House was closed down to visitors for many many months, but also think of this. Just a very different presidency and a presidential spouse. This pair of Bushes prefers to go to Crawford and be comfortable and be informal on their ranch. Not for the Kennedys. The Kennedys were very happy and most happy when they were entertaining the greats of the arts and the sciences and world leaders and let's face it, Hollywood celebrities, so the White House was filled with glamor and glitz, but it was also filled with art and the artists who developed that art.

In this instance, we see Mrs. Kennedy with André Malraux. He is just to her right in this photograph. She of course is wearing a beautiful Cassini pink flowing chiffon silk gown with hand-sewed crystal beads and off the shoulder. Note how closely she is standing to André Malraux. Tish Baldridge says they had a mutual admiration society going, but I began to notice a pattern in the photographs and in Mrs. Kennedy's letters to these individuals. People say about Mrs. Kennedy, well, she wasn't so interested in grass roots politics and she did everything she could to stay off the campaign trail. That may be true, but she knew politics in her own way and that was persuading people to do the things she wanted to do. Politics. Who gets what, when, where and how. This is what she was a master at and part of the way she did it was using her feminine ways. She would sidle up to these men and she would tip her shoulder under their arm and as Tish Baldridge describes it, she would begin to whisper in these cooing voices to these men and she would laugh at their jokes and seem so interested in them. Now, she was in André Malraux. She was not putting this on. She truly admired him, but this was part of the way in which she was able to work within the international community as well in the Washington community.

So here they are at the National Gallery in Washington in early 1963 unveiling the Mona Lisa which the French government had made a direct loan, a personal loan, to President Kennedy to exhibit this to Americans, first at the National Gallery in Washington and then at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and in part, Mrs. Kennedy had a role in this.

In addition to restoration of the White House, promotion of the arts, she also became a mover and a shaker in historic preservation. In 1962, she got wind of a plan to knock down all of those beautiful 19th century townhomes in Lafayette Square just across the street from the White House, what's sometimes called the President's Park, Lafayette Park. She ran to her husband and said we can't let this happen. This would be a huge loss to American history and to American architecture and to the atmosphere surrounding the White House. Please, please, do something to stop this. This plan had been underway since the Eisenhower administration, a bit like the Bay of Pigs. A fiasco in the making that Kennedy had signed off on. The Lafayette Square Eisenhower plan. What they were going to do was put up high rise office blocks, grey, concrete office blocks to accommodate the proliferating federal bureaucracy. Well, President Kennedy was indeed persuaded by Mrs. Kennedy and he stopped the bulldozers. He wrote to the General Services Administration and said I've made a mistake, please let's not knock down these beautiful townhomes.

Mrs. Kennedy then had conversations with John Carl Warnecke. This is the man in this photograph, a very superb architect from the west coast who had a penchant for preserving the past while creating the modern and so he came up with a plan. It was to save the beautiful townhomes from the 19th century, build rather low-rise red brick structures behind them to accommodate federal government and so he compromised and it's a brilliant compromise, but in addition to that then she kicked off the modern historical preservation movement in the United States.

Now, some of Mrs. Kennedy's most fantastic triumphs were on the world stage. In fact, on that trip that I mentioned to you earlier, when the Kennedys were on their way to Vienna in June of 1961 to meet with Khrushchev at the summit, they stopped in Paris and everyone knows the famous line that President Kennedy used at a luncheon a couple of days after they had been in Paris. He said I'd like to introduce myself, I'm the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris and I've enjoyed it, because she made such a hit on the world stage. This was really her debut on the world stage and of course she just ate it up with a spoon because what person could she now charm--Charles de Gaulle, with her impeccably perfect French. He was mesmerized by her and her Givenchy gown with its beautiful satin ivory skirt, its flossed and embossed flowers in the bodice and then what did she do, she topped off her new hairdo with a tiara so she had this regal bearing about her and the Parisians loved her and, of course, Charles de Gaulle did as well.

This was, as I say, on the way to the Vienna Summit. This was a very damaging meeting for President Kennedy, first of all, damaging to his ego. As Robert Dallek says in his recent biography of President Kennedy, Khrushchev was the first person Jack Kennedy ever met he couldn't charm. Couldn't charm with his wit. He couldn't charm with his urbane attitudes. He just simply could not break through that shell and it was a nasty meeting. Khrushchev lectured at Kennedy and harangued Kennedy and Kennedy came out very shaken. Those who were there say he was ashen when he came out of the meetings. He was really taken aback, but Mrs. Kennedy had a triumph. At that state dinner at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, here came Mrs. Kennedy in a shell pink, again, Cassini gown, rather tight and form fitting, so different from what we think of in the '50s fashion. Think of, again, Mamie Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth in the '50s--broad crinoline skirts, very wide, lots and lots of opulent material, but Mrs. Kennedy had this tall 5'8’ statuesque figure. She could certainly wear these more form-fitting outfits and so she completely helped to change fashion going into the 1960s.
Well, as you can see, Khrushchev was mesmerized. Mrs. Kennedy just a little bit different from Mrs. Khrushchev, arrived in her gray peasant outfit and Khrushchev refused to wear black tie, thought that was too capitalist, so he shows up in his dark, drab business suit, but just smiling, beaming, at Mrs. Kennedy. When the official photographers said to Khrushchev we need another picture of you or we'd like to have a picture of you with President Kennedy, he said I'd like to shake hands with Mrs. Kennedy first and so she charmed him and as the AP put it, Khrushchev looked like a school boy, a smitten school boy when the ice melts on the Volga in the springtime. This was Mrs. Kennedy being a goodwill ambassador.

Now, obviously she was traveling with her husband at this time, but she also made a goodwill visit in March of 1962 to Pakistan and India. Think of anyone who can go to Pakistan and India at the Cold War era or now and get along with both heads of state. She charmed Nehru and she charmed President Khan of Pakistan. She'd also treated President Khan in 1961 to her most brilliant White House entertainment and state dinner. She had the dinner parties boated down on the Potomac from the White House to Mt. Vernon and then had wonderful tents set up out on the lawn at Mt. Vernon. It was an unforgettable evening. In thanks, President Khan when Mrs. Kennedy visited Pakistan gave her Sadar, a horse, and that was the horse you saw Mrs. Kennedy riding at the beginning of this talk. It was a beautiful gelding, completely well schooled and Mrs. Kennedy absolutely loved it.

In addition to that, back to Mrs. Kennedy's youthfulness, of course, she had the two beautiful children, but you also may remember that she became pregnant in 1963, early 1963, was to give birth in September of that year. Sadly gave birth prematurely. She often had trouble with her pregnancies throughout her marriage to President Kennedy and she lost that baby that they christened Patrick Bouvier. She lost that baby just a day or so after it was born in August of 1963, so this, too, is a rather sad photograph. This is the family gathered together at Hyannis in August of '63, just a week after the loss of that baby, but I show the photograph because of the image that it projects and to mention to you about the media's role in projecting that image of Mrs. Kennedy and her husband and her family.

Think of this statistic--when President Eisenhower was elected in 1952, 20% of American households had television sets. By the time President Kennedy was elected in 1960, 80% of American households had television sets, so my point in the book is that icons often both reflect the time and help to shape it. Oftentimes icons, cultural icons, political icons, will happen upon the scene at a time when technology and media are changing as happened with the Kennedys. You also have the birth of glossy color magazines like Life and Look that used to love to portray the Kennedys in glorious color on their front covers and they would sell thousands of magazines because of that, so here were the Kennedys both shaping that media, but also being able to use that media to their advantage, so this point about how did Mrs. Kennedy contribute to and reflect the American culture of the 1950s.

I ask you to think of that contrast between the early 1960s and the '50s, but also to think of it in the post-Great Depression, post-World War II era, that you had in the 1950s a burst of consumerism, a burst of the baby boom literally, and the growth of television that Mrs. Kennedy partook of in all facets. She was contributing to the baby boom and women of that World War II generation or just after could relate to her in the fact that they were having their children usually out in the suburbs and what were Americans doing in the '50s but they were buying everything in sight. They were buying new homes and new cars and taking vacations and oftentimes women were out working in the workforce and Mrs. Kennedy I grant you was a consumer at a slightly higher level in terms of her European vacations and her purchasing of antiques and refurbishing the White House, but part and parcel of that element, she was certainly a part of.

But what takes Mrs. Kennedy from being I'll say a mere political symbol to being an icon? I would say it was, sadly, the assassination of her husband because they arrived just about noon in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, to wonderfully warm crowds at Love Field. The sun had burst through the clouds. It had been raining that morning in Ft. Worth where they had spent the previous night and she was very worried would she have to wear a raincoat, would there be open limousine in the motorcade, but another thing to keep in mind about this and, again, in retrospect, it's all very sad, but this was the first domestic political trip Mrs. Kennedy had made with her husband since the 1960 campaign. Not once in those thousand days in the White House had she gone out with him on a domestic political trip. Now, obviously she loved to go abroad with him, but she just wasn't interested in traveling around with him on the political circuit, but look at the joy on her face here and according to Tish Baldridge, Tish said she called just before the trip and said I'm really excited. I'm going to Dallas and Texas and we're making a campaign swing. Really, this was the first kick-off event of the 1964 presidential reelection campaign and you could see here that she looks very happy.

Some will argue that President and Mrs. Kennedy became closer after the death of their son in 1963. I can't tell you if that's true or not. All I know is Mrs. Kennedy went off with Aristotle Onassis on a cruise around the Mediterranean in October of '63 and the President said go. She was so melancholy he hoped that that would help her and I don't want to get into the womanizing that he apparently engaged in up to his death, but we know that this is a fact. Nevertheless, she was very happy on this trip.

The press reported they'd never seen her happier out on the campaign trail and it was so unusual for her to be this happy, but we know what happened just a mere few minutes later as they took the motorcade through Dallas and I think it's important to remember as one writer put it that in that awful horrific seven to eight or nine seconds in which the shots were fired, Mrs. Kennedy lost her husband, her home and her job in that short amount of time and yet she came forward in Air Force One to stand by the new president's side, by Lyndon Johnson's side, as he was sworn in to be the 36th president of the United States, but she insisted that she continue to wear that raspberry suit, that beautiful Chanel raspberry suit that had been so stunning when everyone saw her that morning and yet it was bloodstained. Can't see it here because the White House photographer deliberately got the picture from the waist up, but I know you all will remember that night when she arrived at Andrews Air Force Base because I was only seven, but I remember this. I remember the gasps in our living room when we saw her emerge from Air Force One in that bloodstained suit and she said it was a symbol. She wanted the people of America and the world to see what they - she kept using the term "they" - had done to her husband.

And so in those next few days she appeared again on the world stage, this time dressed in black but completely composed. I could only tell in one video that she lost her composure once in public and it was as she stood with her two children at the bottom of the Capitol steps as her husband's coffin was carried up to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda and the band struck up “Hail to the Chief” and as it began those first few notes, she just dropped her head to her chest and she began to cry softly, but otherwise everyone was so amazed at her courage that she could stand with those two now fatherless children and help the United States get through this very sad time.

But her symbolism of course wouldn't stop there. She worked again with John Carl Warnecke in helping to design her husband's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. It's very simple in its design in that it has rocks that are native to Massachusetts and that they in the midst of them have a natural grass substance that grows there. She wanted it to look like a field in New England but she also asked that she could light at his funeral what she would call an eternal flame, similar to the ones that she had seen in France under the Arc d'Triomphe and so she did light it that day at her husband's funeral and then 30 years later she wanted to be buried there. When she died of cancer in May of 1994, she asked that despite all that had gone on in those 30 years, despite the unpopular and very sad marriage to Onassis, she asked that she be buried with her husband at Arlington and on either side of them, two of their stillborn children and so that's where we go today to see the symbolism of Mrs. Kennedy and the fact that in those 30 years that were left to her, she also in addition to the Arlington gravesite worked so diligently on the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Kennedy Library and Museum as a memorial to her husband in Boston and the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard. These were the concrete representations, the symbolism, of her husband in addition to that myth of Camelot that she wove literally one week after his death.

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