Jackie Kennedy: Martin Luther King Jr. “phony”

CBS News – September 15, 2011

President John F. Kennedy openly scorned the notion of Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson succeeding him in office, according to a book of newly-released interviews with his widow, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

In the interviews, she also called civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “terrible,” “tricky” and “a phony.”

“This book shows Jackie Kennedy unplugged,” historian and CBS News analyst Douglas Brinkley told “Early Show” co-anchor Erica Hill Monday.

He said, “A lot of the rawness of her feelings, I think, as a young woman – she’s is only in her 30s when she is doing these tapes in 1964 – is very different from the more poised and discreet Jackie Kennedy we got to know in the 1980s and 1990s.”

She said her husband and his brother, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a longtime LBJ antagonist, even discussed ways to prevent Johnson from winning the Democratic nomination in a future contest.

The book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,” includes a series of interviews the former first lady gave to historian and former Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. shortly after her husband was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

Over seven sessions, she recalled conversations on topics ranging from her husband’s reading habits to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

The book is scheduled to be published Wednesday by New York-based Hyperion Books.

Its release comes on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s first year in office.

The Associated Press bought a copy last week.

JFK chose Johnson, a Texas senator and former political rival, as his running mate in 1960 because, Brinkley pointed out, JFK felt he needed Johnson on the ticket to win Texas in the presidential election. But Jacqueline Kennedy told Schlesinger in the 1964 interviews that her husband often fretted about the prospect of a Johnson presidency.

“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. “And Bobby told me that he’d had some discussions with him … do something to name someone else in 1968.”

Johnson was sworn in as president after JFK’s assassination and was elected to a full term in 1964. He declined to seek re-election in 1968.

Jacqueline Kennedy also indicated that her husband was highly skeptical about victory in Vietnam, a central battleground of the Cold War and the conflict that brought down Johnson’s presidency.

She said JFK, a Democrat, had named Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican he had defeated for a Massachusetts Senate seat in 1952, as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam because JFK was so doubtful of military success there.

“I think he probably did it … rather thinking it might be such a brilliant thing to do because Vietnam was rather hopeless anyway, and put a Republican there,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.

JFK increased the U.S. presence in Vietnam throughout his brief administration, adding military advisers to help train the South Vietnamese military. Johnson, as president, would later commit ground troops to the conflict despite initial promises not to. Historians still debate whether Kennedy would have done the same.

Jacqueline Kennedy spoke skeptically of King

She called him “tricky” and a “phony” after hearing about FBI tapes of him and a woman in his hotel room, while noting that JFK had urged her not to be judgmental. (JFK’s own adulterous affairs weren’t yet widely known.)

She said King had mocked her husband’s funeral and Cardinal Richard Cushing, who celebrated Mass at the funeral.

“He made fun of Cardinal Cushing and said that he was drunk at it,” she said. “And things about they almost dropped the coffin. I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.”

The book comes with eight audio CDs of the interviews that, according to Amazon.com, have accompanying transcripts. The interviews are, says Amazon, Introduced and annotated by presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

The AP says Jacqueline Kennedy’s voice is firm and girlish, even and clear, but the interviews are occasionally interrupted by sounds of her children, Caroline, who was 5 at the time, and John Jr., who was 3. Schlesinger asks young John if he knows what happened to his father.

“He’s gone to heaven,” the boy replies.

Schlesinger asks what he remembers.

“I don’t remember ANY-thing,” John says playfully.

The book barely mentions the president’s assassination. In a foreword, Caroline Kennedy notes her mother had discussed his murder at length with historian William Manchester, but later sued to keep much of the material from being published until 2067. Manchester’s book on Kennedy, “The Death of a President,” came out in 1967.

Jacqueline Kennedy also gave a memorable interview with journalist Theodore H. White, when she referred to her husband’s time in the White House as “Camelot,” but Caroline Kennedy said the interviews in the new book were “by far the most important” her mother ever gave.

“My mother willingly recalled the span of her married life and shared her insights into my father’s private and public political personality,” Caroline Kennedy wrote.

The former first lady, who died in 1994, and Schlesinger, who died in 2007, at times sound like a couple of old friends sharing gossip, ridiculing Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat, or labeling LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird, as so obedient she was like a “trained hunting dog.” (She would later soften that opinion.)

At other times, the scholarly Schlesinger fills her in on details about her husband before she knew him or corrects a name or date.

Jacqueline Kennedy, clearly at ease, speaks candidly about her in-laws and about other Kennedy insiders.

She marvels at the suspicious nature of her mother-in-law, Rose Kennedy, always wanting to know whether someone was Catholic.

“There seems to be about all these Irish – they always seem to have a sort of persecution thing about them, don’t they?” she asks.

She also accuses sister-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver of undue personal ambition and says the president was anxious to dump FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. She confides she didn’t trust the White House aide and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, believing he encouraged the perception that he had ghostwritten her husband’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage.”

“You know, Jack forgave so quickly, but I never forgave Ted Sorensen,” she said.

Sorensen, who died last year, was widely regarded as devoted to JFK. Jacqueline Kennedy said the president, out of personal fondness, even gave Sorensen the book’s royalties.

She offers intimate details of her husband awaiting election results in 1960, when he defeated Nixon for the presidency, or working on his inaugural speech.

She says little about the events in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, but she does recall a conversation in their room the night before. She despised the Democratic governor of Texas, John Connally, who was in the car with the Kennedys when the president was shot. She said she couldn’t stand him and his “soft mouth.”

“Jack was so sweet. He sort of rubbed my back … and said, ‘You mustn’t say that, you mustn’t say that,’” she recalled. “If you start to say or think that you hate someone, then the next day you’ll act as if you hated him.”

Brinkley told Hill he “was close to Arthur Schlesinger, the professor. He died a few years ago. Ted Sorensen, one of the other keepers of the flame, died, and I think Caroline Kennedy thought, it’s the 50th anniversary right now of the Kennedy presidency, and this is sitting there, and it was time to let her mother have her say, and decided to come public with this.”

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