John F. Kennedy joked about his own possible assassination in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to recently released tapes of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
The tapes, which were the product of conversations with historian and former White House aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in the spring and early summer of 1964, have been released in book form as part of an ongoing celebration of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's first year in office.
In one exchange, Jacqueline Kennedy recalled a 1962 White House conversation between Kennedy and historian David Donald about Abraham Lincoln's presidency:
"'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 quoted her husband as saying. "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."
Months later, after Kennedy successfully negotiated the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, he mused that he had perhaps reached the peak of his own presidency, saying "Well, if anyone's going to shoot me, this would be the day they should do it," according to Jacqueline.
The tapes revealed insights into the life of Jacqueline, who enjoyed the public's fascination despite closely guarding her privacy.
At home and at ease, as if receiving a guest for afternoon tea, she chatted about her husband and their time in the White House. The young Kennedy children, Caroline and John Jr., occasionally popped in. On the accompanying audio discs, you can hear the shake of ice inside a drinking glass. The tapes were to be sealed for decades and were among the last documents of her private thoughts. She never wrote a memoir and became a legend in part because of what we didn't know.
Among other noteworthy revelations:
Jacqueline Kennedy had apparently low opinions of a whole host of people.
She thought civil rights legend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a "phony"; France's Charles de Gaulle was an "egomaniac" and a "spiteful man"; Indira Gandhi, the future prime minister of India, was a "prune bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman."
She dismissed the idea that the eldest Kennedy son, Joseph Jr., would have been president had he not been killed in World War II. "He would have been so unimaginative, compared to Jack," she said.
White House speechwriter Theodore Sorensen had a "big inferiority complex" and was "the last person you would invite at night."
She was especially hard on Lyndon Johnson, who had competed bitterly with her husband for the presidency in 1960 and became vice president through the kind of hard calculation for which the Kennedys became known: Johnson was from Texas and the Democrats needed a Southerner to balance the ticket. Once in office, Johnson's imposing personal style and reluctance to speak up during cabinet meetings alienated the Kennedys. They mocked his accent and his manners, while he resented the Kennedys and other "Harvards" he believed looked down on him. Many top aides left soon after Kennedy was assassinated. Robert Kennedy became a public critic of Johnson's presidency and challenged him for the nomination in 1968.
"Jack said it to me sometimes. He said, 'Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon were president?'" she recalled.
Kennedy and his brother, Robert, had even discussed ways of blocking Johnson from getting the Democratic nomination in 1968, she said.
But she was overwhelmingly positive about her husband - who's extramarital affairs were not yet public knowledge - especially during their time at the White House, which she described as "our happiest years."
Her closest moments with her husband came during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed on the verge of nuclear war. She would lie down with him when he took a nap and walk with him, the two saying little, on the White House lawn. Some officials had sent their wives away, but the first lady resisted. If the bombs fell, she wanted them to be together.
"If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you," she remembers telling her husband. "Even if there's not room in the bomb shelter in the White House. ... I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too than live without you."