Love Jackie

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When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died four months ago, magazine and newspaper articles published around the world celebrated the facts of her life. And the fables too, as it turns out. Consider the stark certainty of Newsweek’s claim that as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had detested Vice President Johnson and his wife, calling them “Uncle Cornpone and his little Porkchop,” and that as a widow she became “increasingly upset” about LBJ’s Presidency. As far back as the 1960s such stories, anecdotes that purported to demonstrate a serious estrangement between the Johnsons and Mrs. Kennedy, regularly circulated. She refused to vote for LBJ when he ran for President in 1964, it was reported; she turned down all the Johnsons’ invitations to visit the White House; and she wouldn’t attend the dedication of the mansion’s garden, which Mrs. Johnson named for her.

But these supposed insider accounts entirely missed a warm and highly personal correspondence between the three, written all those years that the rumors of their mutual dislike were strongest. As a matter of fact, not since Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote to each other had there been such a personal correspondence between a President and another President’s wife. Based at first upon political courtesy, it developed into a true friendship.

Spanning more than a decade, the letters between Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the Johnsons show ties so close as to be almost familial. Contrary to popular belief, this became particularly true after President Kennedy’s assassination; it is Mrs. Kennedy’s startling seven-page handwritten letter to the new President dated November 26, 1963, that sets the tone for the relationship.

A selection of these letters, drawn from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, reveals a markedly intense and emotional tone. These are not simply little bread-and-butter notes, and their cumulative effect, alongside Mrs. Kennedy’s 1974 oral history, made for the library, defies the belief that she held her husband’s successor in contempt.

Just a few years ago, long after any need for political expediency had vanished, Mrs. Onassis was discussing Vietnam and LBJ with someone who vehemently criticized him. According to this source, Mrs. Onassis strongly defended Johnson and spoke with great feeling about his kindness to her and how close they had been.

In this respect the relationship holds some resemblance to that between Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess and Harry Truman: a First Lady and then presidential widow who had become a legend in her own right befriends the Vice President who has been chosen merely to balance the ticket and who comes from an entirely different social world. Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt remained public symbols of their husband’s political programs while their successors —Johnson and Truman—took on the difficult task of forging their own agendas and identities. As the public searched for differences between the widows and the new Presidents, the press fanned the flames of speculation. This would put a strain on any friendship, yet Jackie and the Johnsons remained close—closer far than Eleanor and the Trumans. Bridging the gap, certainly at first, between the apolitical Jackie Kennedy and the highly political Lyndon Johnson was the gentle yet politically savvy Lady Bird Johnson.

The two women first met in their roles as Senate wives. When Jackie entered that circle after her September 1953 wedding to Senator Kennedy, Mrs. Johnson recalled in a 1987 interview, “I remember distinctly … this beautiful young woman coming to my very simple house. … I thought how young she was, and how different from all the rest of us!”

 

A year later, in November 1954, Mrs. Kennedy wrote her first letter to Lyndon Johnson, thanking him for his getwell note to Senator Kennedy, who was recovering from serious spinal surgery. Warm and informal, the letter marks the beginning of their correspondence and their friendship: “Dear Senator Johnson,” she begins, “I just wanted to tell you how terribly much your kind letter meant to Jack. …” She explains that her husband is far too weak to reply himself, then goes on to say, “I never realized how much letters from friends who are thinking about you mean to people who are sick—they give you so much strength and courage for the long weeks when you have to lie in that horrible dark hospital room—so I want to thank you too—because I saw how much it meant to Jack. …

“I just wanted to tell you how terribly much your kind letter meant to Jack…”

“I’ve just realized that here I have been scribbling away about my husband’s illness and never told you how wonderfully thrilled we are for your being Majority Leader—You must be so happy and proud—and I know you will absolutely make history in it. …Very Sincerely, Jacqueline Kennedy.”

At the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, Lady Bird Johnson was deeply disappointed that Lyndon wasn’t nominated for the Presidency and at first didn’t want him to settle for anything less. When the phone rang in the Johnsons’ hotel suite the morning after Kennedy’s nomination, she answered it. It was the nominee asking to see Johnson. Mrs. Johnson told her husband, “Honev, I know he’s going to offer the Vice Presidency, and I hope you won’t take it.” But after much discussion with her and his confidant Sam Rayburn he accepted.