Journalist Pierre Salinger was a close personal friend of John and Robert Kennedy. He worked for both of them and he was press secretary to President Kennedy until he was assassinated in Dallas 20 years ago this week. Now chief foreign correspondent for ABC News in Paris, Salinger was uniquely placed to appraise the Kennedys, their awesome strengths, and their failings. Here is his report:
There were warnings. Nothing of substance, simply the deep misgivings of men and women who had felt the heat waves of political hatred coursing through Texas in the fall of 1963. President John F. Kennedy wanted strong civil rights legislation for blacks and rapprochement with the Soviets, and to many conservative Texans in 1963 those were indefensible objectives. “Don’t let the president come down here,” a woman wrote me a few days before his trip. “I'm worried about him. I think something terrible will happen to him.” United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been spat upon on a recent visit and had even telephoned the White House to suggest that perhaps the president should postpone his trip.
Kennedy never received the suggestion, but he would not have acceded to it. He had never shied from the subject of assassination but he viewed it fatalistically. He had always told his intimates that if any man were willing to spend his own life to kill a president of the United States, he could do it. And once Kennedy had even specified the method of how an assassin would do it: from a high building, with a high-powered rifle and a telescopic sight.
But it was life, not death, that was uppermost in Kennedy’s mind in November, 1963. The dark cloud of his infant son Patrick’s death the previous August had lifted. He was a vibrant 46, in the third year of his presidency and at the height of his powers. His first years in office had been marked by a tentativeness born of the knowledge that, with his election victory of a mere 100,000 votes, he had won no clear mandate from the American people. And then he had gravely wounded his administration by backing a clandestine attempt of Cubans-in-exile to invade their homeland, resulting in the “Bay of Pigs” fiasco. But sangfroid, maturity and grace had marked the president’s successful effort to turn Soviet missiles away from Cuba, and his popularity had rebounded. Domestically, the country was in excellent economic shape, and he was predicting—provided Congress passed his tax bill—the longest and strongest peacetime expansion in the nation’s history (a prediction that came true). In foreign affairs, the U.S.S.R.’s most belligerent act in recent months had been to hold a Yale professor on espionage charges. The Soviets and China seemed more worried about one another than about the United States. In Vietnam, the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem had just been ousted in a military coup. The new government, pro-Western and anti-Communist, promised to stop oppressing the Buddhists—a feature of the previous government that the United States had opposed—and Kennedy was looking to the day when he could disengage from Vietnam entirely.
But the success of John Kennedy in November, 1963, was not something one could describe simply with facts and conditions. American presidents are, by virtue of the office, the most powerful men in the world. Kennedy, at that moment, was also the most popular man in the world, quite possibly the most popular man in all history. Not only had he roused his countrymen from their post-Second World War torpor, but he had seemed to kindle a vision throughout the world about what humankind could and should be. His perpetual tan, expressive grey eyes and compelling face radiated promise. He was at once elegant and accessible, the embodiment of intellect, wit and charm. What he projected above all was a belief in mankind’s possibility to determine its own fate.
Kennedy was going to Texas, nominally at the suggestion of then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, in the hope that his visit might heal some ruptures within the state’s Democratic party. But his trip had an even more important objective: to solidify his position with the voters of the state. Texas was critical to the president’s re-election prospects in 1964, but winning the state was by no means assured. He had barely carried Texas in the 1960 election—he won by a mere 46,000 votes—even though the state’s favorite son, Johnson, had been on the Democratic ticket. Nationally, his approval rating with the voters stood at a healthy 59 per cent, but among Texas voters it was well under 40 per cent.
In no Texas city was the president’s political problem more evident than in Dallas. It was a curious city, bursting with new wealth from discoveries of vast East Texas oil pools, evolving into a financial capital, its human beneficiaries exhibiting the ostentation and often the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. Its political sentiments were often expressed in a raw and primitive fashion, particularly by its leading newspaper, whose publisher once told Kennedy that at a time when the nation needed a man on horseback to lead it, he was, in effect, riding his daughter’s tricycle. The white-collar majority of Dallas was essentially fundamentalist, comfortable with absolutes, uncomfortable, apparently, with a president who believed both in change and in compromise as a means to achieve it.
But none of this was evident to Kennedy as he alighted from Air Force One at Dallas’ Love Field shortly before 11 a.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, his wife, Jacqueline, roses in her arms and a warm smile on her lips, at his side. It was at Jackie’s own initiative that she was with her husband in Dallas. If there had been problems between them in the past, their relations had been considerably strengthened in the aftermath of the loss at birth of their son. Jackie, who has consistently been portrayed as uninterested in politics, was in fact very committed to her husband’s effort. Without glorifying herself (something totally out of character ) she recognized that she was an important political asset and that her participation in the campaign for re-election would be a plus factor for J.F.K.
The day was sunny, the air fresh. An exuberant crowd roared its greeting, as if to prove to Kennedy that what he had heard about the city simply was not true. Eyes crinkling, smiling broadly, the president greeted the crowd with outstretched arms. Then the presidential cavalcade started into town. The car, the president’s own, might have worn its bubble top. Secret Service men might have ridden on its trunk, providing a human shield. But the president had vetoed all those measures because he felt they distanced him from the crowd.
Thin at the outset, the crowd had grown as the caravan approached the centre of the city. Then it thinned again, as the caravan made a sharp left turn at the corner of Elm and Houston streets and headed down an incline toward an underpass. First came the police motorcycle escort and then the big Lincoln with the Kennedys in back and John Connally, the Democratic governor of Texas, and his wife in the jump seats. Moments before, Idanell Connally had turned to the president and said, “You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome.” Moments later, as they passed the Texas School Book Depository, a nondescript brick building, there was a shot, and then another and another. The first bullet struck Kennedy in the neck. He slumped forward and leaned toward his wife. The second shot struck Gov. Connally. The third shot hit the right part of the president’s head. “Oh, no, no,” Jacqueline Kennedy cried. “Oh my God, they have shot my husband.”
At the moment the shots were fired, I was an hour and a half out of Honolulu, aboard a sleek blue-and-white presidential Boeing 707 jet, bound for Wake Island and Tokyo. Aboard the plane were six members of the president’s cabinet, including then Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who were travelling to Japan for a five-day economic conference with the Japanese cabinet. I was immersed in my reading when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Robert Manning, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. “The secretary wants to see you up forward,” he said.
I found Rusk, grave-faced, holding a yellow piece of paper in his hand. I recognized it instantly as having come from the plane’s news Teletype machine. The words on the page were badly scrambled—but what I managed to read was unbelievable.
I kept reading it over and over again. The words stayed on the paper. They would not go away.
In less than a minute, from almost 6,000 miles away, I was talking to the White House Situation Room, the operating nerve centre of the nation. “Situation Room, this is Wayside [my code name]. Can you give me latest situation on Lancer [the President’s code name]?”
The answer came right back. “He and Gov. Connally have been hit in car in which they were riding.”
Minutes that were lifetimes passed. Messages flew back and forth. Then, from the Situation Room: “ . . . hold Wayside on the line. More information coming up . . . . I read from AP bulletin: ‘Kennedy apparently shot in the head, fell face down, blood on his head, Mrs. Kennedy cried out . . . Connally half-seated slumped to the left, blood on face and forehead . . . president and Gov. Connally were rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital near Dallas Trade Mart’ . . . will contact you if we get more.”
Our plane had turned back to Hawaii. Again, an interminable wait for messages. Then: “Situation Room relays following to Wayside. Have report quoting Kilduff [one of my assistants] that the president is dead . . . .”
The president is dead. The words were unreal. The microphone dropped out of my hands.
I walked slowly back to Rusk’s cabin. Tears were already streaking my face. “The president is dead,” I told the cabinet officers. Without another word being said, everyone bent his head and said his private prayer.
Rusk then walked to the microphone in the front of the plane and announced the president’s death to the 28 passengers. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the secretary of state speaking. We have received official confirmation that President Kennedy is dead. I am saddened to have to tell you this grievous news. We have a new president. May God bless our new president and our nation.”
There was a cumulative cry of anguish from the passengers. I was standing at the front of the aisle, sobbing. My wife, Nancy, came up and held me, tears rushing down her face. Other wives reached for their husbands, and the aisle was clogged.
Slowly the sobbing subsided, and those aboard returned to their seats and sat in stunned silence.
One thought kept running through my mind. I had been everywhere in the world with the president, from the small towns of America to Paris and Rome and Caracas and Bogota. I had been with him from difficult campaign days when we were lucky to get 20 people in one group to the tumultuous welcome he had received from two million in Mexico City. I wished I had been with him in Dallas.
But soon other, urgent thoughts impinged.
At that moment, no one knew whether this act had been the consequence of a crazed fanatic or the first shot of a global conspiracy. If it were the latter, then our plane, with six cabinet members aboard, including the secretary of state, was a likely target—a “sitting duck,” for the craft was unarmed and without military escort.
In the hours that followed, the six cabinet members thrashed out the possibilities. When the discussions had concluded, the consensus was that the assassination was, indeed, the opening shot of a plot. Who was behind it? Russia? Cuba? Was it a right-wing conspiracy? And how widespread was it? Lacking answers, Rusk ordered a worldwide alert of American embassies. His principal concern was that with Washington immobilized by the tragedy of Kennedy’s death, certain enemies of the United States might take advantage of the situation to advance their pawns somewhere in the world. Once we landed at Hickam Field, Rusk instructed Undersecretary of State George W. Ball to undertake an immediate country-by-country study of what foreign policy problems might be triggered by the assassination of the president.
When we were airborne again, the conversation turned to what kind of man would kill the president. The opinion was almost unanimous: it would have to be a militant right-winger from the lunatic fringe of Dallas.
The messages kept coming off the wire-service machine, and finally one started grinding out the story of the arrest in Dallas of Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, an employee of the Texas Book Depository, from where the shots had been fired. Oswald, dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Marines, had been missing when employees were rounded up for questioning, and police had put out a bulletin for his arrest. In his flight, he had killed a Dallas policeman who had stopped him for questioning. What stunned us most was the information that Oswald had gone to Russia and sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship and been active since his return to the States in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. That went against all the preconceived theories we had established. “If this is true,” Rusk said, “this is going to have repercussions around the world for years to come.” How prophetic his words were!
Our nonstop flight from Honolulu to Andrews Air Force Base arrived at 12:31 a.m., Washington time. In the darkness outside the plane, I heard my driver calling, “Mr. Salinger.” I tumbled into the car for the drive back to the White House.
Thought of rest was impossible. Numbness replaced weariness, and I plunged into work, almost like a sleepwalker. I called the hospital where the president’s body was being prepared for burial and learned that the body would be brought back to the White House sometime after 4 a.m. I walked over to the East Room of the White House, where the body was to lie in state, to check the arrangements and then out to the north driveway, where a military guard of honor was already forming.
At 4:25 in the morning a black hearse drove through the northwest gate and past the squad of marines standing at attention. The casket was then carried by a group of men representing all our services. Following the casket came Mrs. Kennedy, still wearing the pink suit she had worn that morning in Texas, spattered now with her husband’s blood. The president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was with her, as were several of the president’s close associates.
The casket was placed on a black-draped catafalque in the centre of the room while four guards took their places at the corners.
Mrs. Kennedy walked forward slowly and knelt by the casket in silent prayer. She then leaned forward and kissed the casket and slowly walked out of the door.
Our chief was home. And for the first time since I had stared incredulously at the piece of yellow paper in the hands of the secretary of state, I began to believe he was really dead.
The rest of the night is a blur. I went back to my office for several hours. Mrs. Kennedy had invited Larry O’Brien and Ken O’Donnell, two of the president’s closest associates, and me to spend the night sleeping at the White House in the quarters on the third floor, over the rooms where she and the president had lived.
We sat on the edge of the bed talking for a half-hour or so, trying to piece together and relive the events of the day—as if our sharing them might make them more bearable. Finally, about 7 a.m., we went to sleep.
At 8 a.m. the telephone by my bed rang. I picked it up. The operator said, “Mr. Salinger, the president is calling.” And for that instant I thought to myself it was all a dream, he wasn’t really dead. And then another voice came on the phone. “Pierre, this is Lyndon Johnson.”
Johnson was calling me—as he would call the rest of John Kennedy’s appointees—to ask me to continue as press secretary to the president. “Pierre, I know how much President Kennedy meant to you, and I know how you must feel now. But I want you to stay on the job. I need you more than he ever did.” I told him I would stay.
I dressed quickly and went down to my office, pausing in the East Room for another glimpse of the casket. The door to the president’s office was ajar, and I glanced inside. All of J.F.K.’s personal possessions had been taken away during the night—the rocking chair, the ship models, the marine paintings, the portraits of Caroline and John. Lyndon Johnson would not move into the White House until after the funeral the following Monday, but the sight of that barren office, awaiting its new tenant, made me realize that the transition had already begun.
For the next four days, I found myself serving both a living and a dead president. My twice-daily press briefings were attended by the largest crowd of reporters in White House history. Each was split into two parts, the first dealing with the funeral plans and the second with the activities of President Johnson. The deep personal affection most of the correspondents felt for J.F.K. was apparent at every briefing. Many of the newsmen wept openly. Others told me later that they had had to force themselves to take notes because they just couldn’t believe they were reporting the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Quite often, not only during this period but in the months that followed, I would announce that “President Kennedy” had done this or that, but the press understood, and not one correspondent reported my lapses.
After one of the briefings, I went to the outer office to check on a press release stencil. The secretary who had been typing it was leaning against a filing cabinet and crying. Blue correction fluid was spilled on her desk, and when I took the stencil out of her typewriter to give to another secretary, I saw the error she had been unable to correct: “President Kennedy today announced . . . .”
In a poll taken in the Western world several years ago, an extraordinary 95 per cent of the people questioned remembered exactly where they were and what they had been doing at the moment they learned that John Kennedy had been killed. Only half of those people had the same vivid recollection of deaths in their own families. Is there a man or woman, alive then and now, who does not recall the shattering events that followed the assassination, each more poignant than the last, events that wrung from us such quantities of tears that we thought we had none left to shed, until the next event wrung more?
The majesty in grief of Jacqueline Kennedy, a widow at 34. The ring she placed on her dead husband’s finger, the kiss on his bloodied lips, the kiss upon his coffin.
The sight of six-year-old Caroline, kneeling at her mother’s side, reaching beneath the American flag to press her hand to the casket. The farewell salute of tiny John, three years old on the day of his father’s burial.
Was ever a sadness more pervasive? In Russia, Nina Khrushchev wept. Her husband, the Soviet premier, was the first to visit the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and to sign the condolence book. Warriors in Nairobi, Kenya, wept. Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Broz Tito was so overcome that he could scarcely speak. “Believe me, I would rather it happen to me than to him,” a weeping Ahmed Ben Bella of Algiers told the American ambassador.
Thousands of young Americans, hearing the news, went immediately to airports, flew to Washington and stood all night in freezing weather to pass the coffin. At one point the line they joined was three miles long, five abreast.
Berliners placed candles in their windows at the suggestion of Mayor Willy Brandt. The taxi drivers of Rome parked an empty cab outside the U.S. Embassy with a wreath propped against it. After a performance at London’s Old Vic Theatre, Laurence Olivier stopped the applause and bade the audience rise while the orchestra played The Star Spangled Banner. MPs on both sides of the House of Commons in Ottawa and London wept. Lester Pearson in Canada and Harold Macmillan in Britain paid their tributes.
“All I have,” Lyndon Johnson said gravely and quietly—his first words to the U.S. Congress as president—“I would have given, gladly, not to be standing here today.” It was the day following John Kennedy’s funeral, the nation’s spirit still seeming to march to the sombre cadence of the muffled drums that had accompanied his coffin to Arlington National Cemetery. To the Congress and the nation, Lyndon Johnson promised continuity. “John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But,’ he said, ‘let us begin.’ Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue . . . .”
I, for once, was exhausted, emotionally drained, unable to work after four days of around-the-clock service to both a dead and living president. Then, Robert Kennedy proposed that he and I and several close friends, most of them members of the president’s staff, go to Florida and rent a house and just talk for several days. So we went, and one day we played a game of touch football, and such was the rage we had held inside and the overpowering need to vent it that we played against one another with a vengeance to the point that one of our group broke a limb. And when our rage was spent, Robert Kennedy talked to us, Robert Kennedy who had suffered even more than we had, and he said we could not let the death of John Kennedy be the end of the world. We did have to continue.
John Kennedy’s world
Twenty years have now passed since the assassination of President Kennedy at the height of his power and to the accompaniment of a measure of grief such as the world had never seen before.
The interval has featured a raging controversy over how Kennedy was shot, and by whom, and why. Few doubt that Oswald, the ex-U.S. marine with Communist sympathies and a psychopathic past, fired the killing shot, but many believe that Oswald did not act alone. It is felt not only that someone else was shooting but that a conspiracy of great significance was involved.
I believe that President Kennedy was killed by a single, demented assassin acting on his own and that this man, in turn, was killed by another man acting on his own, who was motivated and temporarily crazed by grief. If someone had been able to prove otherwise in the interval, I would have accepted that proof, but, in the absence of proof after all these years and so much investigation, to argue the question further is pointless.
What seems to me to be much more to the point—particularly in a world far more dangerous than the one from which John Kennedy departed 20 years ago—is the question of what there was in this man that produced such universal hope and provoked such an outpouring of grief when he died. What events did his death unleash—not simply on his wife and children or his brothers and their families, but on his country and the world? What future did we lose when we lost him?
For 15 years now, I have remained silent in the face of a mounting campaign to denigrate and even destroy the image of John Kennedy. He has been described as everything from a dangerous incompetent to a sex maniac. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death, it is time to set the record straight. I will try to do that with the greatest possible objectivity. While I confess to an admiration and respect for his memory equal to what I felt for him in life, I could not betray him if I chose to. The facts simply do not warrant it. To the contrary, they demonstrate that John Kennedy, at his death, was evolving into an exceptional president. I am painfully aware that 1,000 days is a lamentably short period in which to prove your real worth in the most powerful office in the world. But in those 1,000 days, I submit, he had already laid the groundwork for a world very different from, and very much better than, the one we live in today.
Let us begin with Kennedy himself, the president I served as press secretary and the man I knew as a friend.
He was not a perfect man. He was a human being, not a myth. For all his loftiness of purpose, he did not take himself that seriously. He had no great vision of himself as being some kind of political or intellectual giant. He understood that he was a human being dealing with human problems and that he would make mistakes. And he did make mistakes. But he was a man who learned from his mistakes, who did not commit them twice.
The Bay of Pigs is a perfect example. That effort to mount an invasion by Cuban exiles had been initiated during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy learned about it only after winning the 1960 election. But he did nothing to abort the mission—and his failure to do so was possibly the greatest mistake he made as president. Kennedy’s decision to proceed was based on ironclad assurances from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon not only that the mission would succeed but that massive opposition to Fidel Castro’s regime still existed in Cuba—totally wrong on both counts. Nevertheless, Kennedy did not hesitate for a moment to take the entire responsibility for the debacle.
Fourteen years later, I met with Castro in Havana—the only member of the Kennedy inner staff ever to do so. Castro was still struck by Kennedy’s candor. “We must not forget that when everyone was blaming someone else for the Bay of Pigs, he stood up and assumed the responsibility for everything,” the Cuban leader told me. He considered that stand “courageous.”
The evolution of East-West relations during the Kennedy administration is very revealing about the Kennedy character. It showed him as a man who could and did learn from experience. And what a difference that made!
The initial contact—the meeting in Vienna between Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev—was hardly an auspicious start for the improvement of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The meeting was tough and direct. Khrushchev, in the final brief discussion between himself and Kennedy, said he could no longer postpone a settlement of the Berlin question and that he would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany in December, 1961, six months later. Once that was done, he said, he would recognize no continuing American rights in West Berlin and would cut off access roads to the city. If the United States chose to go to war over this, “that is your problem,” he said.
“It is you and not I who wants to force a change,” Kennedy replied.
Khrushchev shrugged. His decision was final.
“It’s going to be a cold winter,” Kennedy said—his last words to Khrushchev.
Perhaps the most important consequence of the tension at Vienna and the events that followed was the initiation of a remarkable series of private letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev starting in September, 1961. I was the first, and subsequently the most frequent, intermediary for this correspondence, although why the Russians elected me at the outset was never made clear. I did have a good relationship with two important Russian figures by that point, one of them Aleksei Adzhubei, the Soviet chairman’s son-in-law, who was the editor of the powerful Soviet daily, Izvestia. The other man was Mikhail Kharlamov, who was Khrushchev’s spokesman. We had debated on American television in the summer of 1961, and they had spent hours at my home outside Washington, discussing how U.S.Soviet relations and communications could be improved.
There was another shadowy figure in the affair, Georgi Bolshikov, nominally the editor of an English-language magazine in the United States called U.S.S.R. (the product of a cultural agreement) but, according to the CIA, an important agent of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Bolshikov accompanied Adzhubei and Kharlamov whenever we were together. He was a jovial man and a hard drinker but he spoke excellent English and often served as an interpreter when Adzhubei and Kharlamov wanted to be more precise in their own language.
The first message, from Khrushchev to Kennedy, was delivered to me by Bolshikov in a suite at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. It was totally unexpected, and electrifying as well, because it signalled a break in Khrushchev’s previous intransigent position on Berlin.
What impressed me about this and subsequent exchanges? I cannot break the secrecy that still surrounds the messages, but I can make some comments on their style and tone.
First, Khrushchev’s letters. They showed a certain inconsistency. One got the impression that some had been written for him and that he had written others himself. The latter were far more important, for whether you liked Khrushchev or not, he was a wily, tough peasant with a view of world affairs that brought them down to basic human concerns. His letters flowed with comparisons between current events and common subjects like tilling the soil or bringing in the wheat harvest. During the Cuban missile crisis, he compared what was going on to two men pulling from opposite ends of a rope with a knot in the middle. “If we keep pulling, the knot will tighten,” he said.
Kennedy’s messages were casual, relaxed and informative. He treated the Soviet leader with the greatest respect and constantly tried to emphasize the subjects in which there was agreement between the two countries. While the state department would draft papers dealing with the substance of Kennedy’s response, the actual letter would be written by Kennedy in his own style.
The confidence built up between the men by this private channel at the highest level was certainly a major influence on Kennedy’s understanding of Khrushchev’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as Khrushchev’s understanding of Kennedy’s determination, which led to the defusing without nuclear conflict of the dangerous Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy believed that Khrushchev, if pushed to the wall, would not hesitate to pull the nuclear trigger, and he made certain throughout that the Soviet chairman was always presented with options. The policy was one of gradual response, giving Khrushchev the time to reflect and change his policy.
After Khrushchev had withdrawn the missiles, Kennedy was adamant that the United States not cry victory. For Kennedy, the peaceful result was due to the action of two men, not one, the other being Khrushchev. One can only wonder where U.S.-Soviet relations would be today if such a frank exchange were taking place between Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov.
John Kennedy did bestir his countrymen. Twenty years after his assassination, a Harris survey showed that he rates more highly among his fellow Americans than any of the eight preceding presidents. Forty per cent of those polled said that Kennedy most inspired confidence in the White House. The closest former president was Franklin D. Roosevelt, with 23 per cent.
That regard, I believe, is reflected throughout the world as well. I have spent 15 of the 20 years since his death living and travelling abroad. Not a day in my life has passed since his death when someone has not mentioned him to me. I still see his picture hung in the homes of both the mighty and the humble. I saw it once on the wall of a KGB agent’s flat in Moscow. It is clear to me that Lee Harvey Oswald did much, much more than kill a man. He killed a dream shared by all mankind.
A tribute to Jacqueline
Everyone lost something in the death of John F. Kennedy. Two people lost the most—his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and his brother Robert. This story is about them.
I met Jacqueline Kennedy almost 25 years ago when I first went to work for John F. Kennedy, then a United States senator from Massachusetts who was running for the presidency. In my first contacts with her, I found her to be a highly intelligent woman, soft-spoken and shy, with an immense passion for privacy. As a committee political activist intent on electing John Kennedy president, I was concerned by that shyness and quest for privacy. It hardly met the standards Americans had come to expect of wives at the sides of their mates in the gruelling political arena.
The more I got to know Jackie, the more my view of her changed. I realized that her own predispositions would not keep her from doing what was necessary to help her husband. She would simply bring her own style to her efforts. Where the Kennedy family life was a turbulent one, and presidential politics even more turbulent, Jackie brought a calm serenity to her task. She deflected tension with humor.
It is one of the great ironies of the Kennedy saga that more has been written about this woman who so greatly craved privacy than about any woman in history. What adds such bitterness to the irony is that so little of what has been written is true. In the 20 years since her husband’s assassination, Jackie has lived her life frequently pained by the mountains of lies that have been printed about her but not once breaking her desire for privacy to answer her detractors.
It is significant that she hated the term “First Lady,” as the wives of American presidents are called. She found it presumptuous; it was her husband who had been elected to the presidency. As she pointed out, she had not been elected to anything.
When Jackie arrived at the White House, daughter Caroline was already 3, son John barely two months old. Her primary concern, it was clear from the start, was to assure that her children would grow up as normally as possible in spite of their august surroundings, a difficult task to say the least.
One of her phobias had to do with publicity. She wanted her children to be able to play in their backyard, just as other children did. The problem, of course, was that their particular backyard was the South Lawn of the White House, a favorite viewing spot for tourists and picture spot for photographers. The result was predictable. As the deluge of publicity continued unabated, Jackie’s anger mounted to the point of ferocity. Because I was the president’s press secretary, I bore the brunt of her outrage.
Sitting in my home in the French countryside is a picture of Jackie and myself, with an inscription from her: “To Pierre—from the greatest cross he has to bear.” It was Jackie’s humorous allusion to the scores of handwritten notes she had sent me during the time I served as White House press secretary, protesting that I was not always doing enough to protect the children and the privacy of their lives. An example:
“I told Pam [Pam Turnure, Mrs. Kennedy’s press secretary] to tell you this about a week ago. I thought you had made an arrangement with the fotogs not to take children playing at WH. They have had all the pictures of Macaroni [Caroline’s pony] they need. I mean this—want no more. And if you are firm and will take the time you can stop it. So please do. What is a press secretary for—to help the press, yes—but also to protect us.”
Jackie was not an enthusiastic political campaigner and she did not make many appearances but she was willing to do so when she felt it could be useful. When Kennedy went to Latin America in 1961, she went with him because she spoke Spanish and could deliver speeches in Spanish, which contributed greatly to the aura of their visit. As the 1964 campaign approached, she volunteered to her husband that she would like to help and would do whatever he asked of her.
That was why she was in the car with him in Dallas cradling his bleeding head in her arms as the car roared through the streets to the hospital where he would die.
The exemplary courage Jackie Kennedy displayed during the ensuing days and at the funeral will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. While many around her broke down, she maintained her composure throughout, her face a picture of ineffable grief, but her head erect and her eyes dry. It is said that she wanted to set an example for the hundreds of millions of people who would be watching, and I’m sure that is true. But Jackie considered her emotion a private matter, best expressed when she was alone.
Once the president was buried, Jackie retreated to Georgetown, to the home of her friend Averell Harriman. But a few days later, one of the white-gloved ushers showed up at my office with a package. When I opened it I burst into tears. Inside was President Kennedy’s leather cigar holder with the initials J.F.K. engraved on it. Jackie knew I was a cigar smoker and how much that particular memento of the president would mean to me. And she did something similar for all the members of the White House staff. What pain she must have endured as she sifted through her husband’s belongings to find something appropriate for each of the men and women who had served him.
A lament for Robert
Robert Kennedy was the best friend I have ever had. I cannot exaggerate his influence on my life. He gave me perspective, ambition and belief in myself, and then he gave me the opportunity to test myself as I had never dreamed I would. Whatever good has happened to me—and it has been a great deal—is to a great degree a consequence of his impact on my life. It does no dishonor to John Kennedy when I say that his brother Robert, had he lived, might have made an even greater mark on the world. Both men were idealists, but John Kennedy’s idealism was tempered by pragmatism. Robert Kennedy, by the time of his death, had evolved into a deeply committed man.
Very few men have a public image as different from their real personality as did Robert Kennedy. The favorite image word was “ruthless.” I never met anyone as sensitive to the sentiments of those around him. You can’t be both sensitive and ruthless. From the time I first met him in 1956 until his assassination 12 years later, the evolution of Robert Kennedy was staggering. At the outset, he saw the entire world in blacks and whites. Men and women were either good or bad. There were no composites. One of the things the exercise of power taught him, particularly as attorney general, was that there were such things as grey areas, and that there was a need to compromise from time to time in order to advance toward objectives.
The years between John Kennedy’s death and Robert Kennedy’s death were a time of intense and fundamental political and personal introspection in the United States. It was in those years that Robert Kennedy changed the most. He became totally committed to the causes he espoused: an end to the war in Vietnam, equality for blacks, an end to poverty in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Once we were talking about Latin America, and Robert said, “If I had grown up in Latin America, I probably would have been Che Guevara.” That will suggest the intensity of the revolutionary spirit that had developed within him.
Never, in all the time I spent with Robert Kennedy before his brother’s death, not even in the most intimate discussions we had, did he once suggest or even intimate that he, himself, wanted to be president or thought he one day might. His only ambition during John Kennedy’s administration was to serve it as effectively as he could, first as attorney general and then in whatever advisory capacity requested.
I believe that, had he lived, he would have won the Democratic nomination in 1968. He believed it, too. In California, in early June, he felt that if he could win two state primaries in a single day, that would nail down the nomination. Those victories—in California and South Dakota—came to pass on June 4, 1968.
Ten days before the California primary, I went to dinner at the home of one of the state’s most powerful Democratic leaders, Paul Ziffren, and his wife, Mickey. There, I ran into a friend, the French writer Romain Gary. After dinner, Gary approached me and said, “You know, your guy will be killed.”
I had managed to push the idea of assassination to the back of my mind. Suddenly, I was directly confronted with it. “Why do you think so?” I said.
“He’s too irresistible a temptation for the American paranoiac personality, too much provocation, too rich, too young, too attractive, too happy, too lucky, too successful. He arouses in every ‘persecuted’ type a deep sense of injustice.”
The subject came up a few days later in Malibu, where Bobby was resting at the home of film director John Frankenheimer. Gary was there, too, with his wife, Jean Seberg. He put the subject to Bobby: “What precautions are you taking?”
Bobby, who knew what he meant because I had already reported the conversation to him, shook his head. “There’s no way to protect a candidate who’s stumping the country. No way at all. You’ve just got to give yourself to the people and trust them. From then on, it’s just that good old ‘bitch luck.’ ” Bobby twisted a glass of orange juice in his hand. “In any event, you have to have luck on your side to be elected president of the United States. Either it’s with you or it isn’t. I’m pretty sure there’ll be an attempt on my life sooner or later. Not so much for political reasons. I don’t believe that. Just plain nuttiness. That’s all. There’s plenty of that around. We live in a time of extraordinary psychic contagion. Someone should make a study of the traumatizing effect caused by the mass media, which dwells on and lives by drama.”
At six o’clock on the evening of June 4, Robert moved to the Ambassador Hotel, a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, to await the returns. As the co-ordinator of press operations for the campaign, I remained downstairs in a ballroom where we had set up facilities for the press and where, win or lose, Robert would make a speech to supporters and campaign workers later in the evening. Whenever reports came in from South Dakota or various parts of California I would relay them to him in his suite.
From the start, it looked good, and by 11 p.m. I was able to assure the candidate that he could come down and make a victory speech with the confidence that he had won the California primary. When Kennedy finished speaking, the crowd in the ballroom was so vast that he decided to duck out through the kitchen. I remained behind with the press.
Suddenly people were rushing away from the kitchen. I fought my way past them and saw Robert on the ground. I was certain he was dead. I thought, not again?
An ambulance took Kennedy to a hospital. I had no car, and there were no taxicabs. A man on a motorcycle stopped and offered me a ride. My wife, Nicole, was with me. We both got on and roared across the city to the hospital.
They fought for his life, as doctors in another hospital had fought for his brother’s life. But then he too was gone.
The funeral service was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Burial was at Arlington National Cemetery. The coffin was carried from New York to Washington on a train. I have always maintained that if you want to know what America is really like you can’t fly, you have to take the train. It is from the train that you would see Robert Kennedy’s people. They were all there that day. There were so many of them, standing so close to the tracks, that the train had to reduce its speed. Even so, several persons were killed.
As Robert Kennedy’s funeral train wended its way south through the slums of Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore and through the beautiful open countryside of Pennsylvania and Maryland, one thought kept coming back as I looked at the people assembled on that train. The tribute to Robert Kennedy was not the quantity of the people on the train, but their quality. He had that remarkable ability to involve and attract the best, the brightest and most committed people. I doubt if Bob Kennedy ever called a single person in the top echelon of his campaign to ask them to come to work. They just came, giving up jobs and careers, changing their lives because they believed in him. And so it was on the train. The passengers on that train could have run the most exciting government the United States had ever seen.