The Johnsons and the Kennedys are popularly thought to have shared a strong mutual dislike, but stacks of letters and a remarkable tape of Jacqueline Kennedy reminiscing show something very different —and more interesting
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’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.
Mrs. Johnson campaigned actively. Covering thirty-five thousand miles, she made a point of appearing at many integrated events in her home state, despite the disapproval she encountered from some Texans. As Robert Kennedy said, “Lady Bird carried Texas for us.”
was pregnant at the time, and except for a few appearances in the Northeast in the autumn, she remained in Hyannis. From her home she composed a regular feature, offered through the Democratic National Committee, called “Campaign Wife,” that touched on issues she believed were important to women, like education and medical care for the elderly. She sent along material on the latter subject to Mrs. Johnson, saying, “I knew you would be interested.”
Mrs. Kennedy got a better sense of how the Johnsons worked as a political team when the couple visited Hyannis Port shortly after the Democratic and the Republican conventions. Jackie recalled in the 1974 interview that Lady Bird carried a spiral pad, “and when she’d hear a name mentioned she’d jot it down. … Or sometimes if Mr. Johnson wanted her, he’d say, ‘Bird, do you know so-and-so’s number, and she’d always have it down. Yet she would sit talking with us, looking so calm. I was very impressed with that.”
The Johnsons and Mrs. Kennedy next saw one another on inauguration day, January 20, 1961, and through their working relationship a friendship blossomed. The Johnsons donated Abraham Lincoln’s appointment book for the White House restoration, and the Vice President ar- ranged to have a chandelier initially installed at the White House by Ulysses Grant returned from the Capitol. On her part, Jackie, feeling that the Johnsons deserved greater visibility at White House functions, decided to have their names announced along with those of other dignitaries so that they wouldn’t just fade into the background “like maids.” Lady Bird endeared herself to Jackie by being a willing substitute when the First Lady canceled an appearance.
By this time the First Lady was addressing the Vice President as “Lyndon” in her letters. The clearest refutation of the legend that the soignée Jacqueline looked down upon the rough Texan was her specific request that he give the speech at a party honoring a man she greatly admired, André Malraux. She believed Johnson’s folksy yet eloquent American manner would appeal to the French intellectual, and on February 4, 1962, she wrote LBJ urging him to be the one who replied to Malraux’s address: ”…you are the only person who could properly respond to Malraux— …
“As you know … this visit here is such an important one—for all the cultural side of our country—The dinner we will give for him at the White House [on] May 10—will be like the Casals dinner—in that all the great American writers oc poets will be there—
”… and it is so vital that the most important & the most eloquent person—you—be there— …
“My best wishes to you always, Jackie.”
Of course, LBJ accepted.
When, in August 1963, the Kennedys lost their premature two-day-old son, Patrick Bouvier, they received thousands of sympathy notes, among them this one: “You give so much happiness—you deserve more.
“We think of you—pray for you and grieve with you. Would say more but you would have to read it—and I fear want to answer it—don’t.” It was from Lady Bird and Lyndon.
The event that was forever to link Jackie and the Johnsons was, of course, the November 22, 1963, assassination of the President in Dallas during the first unofficial campaign trip of the 1964 presidential election.
The Johnsons were in the car immediately following that of the Kennedys and Gov. and Mrs. John ConnalIy. After riding through an underpass and down a hill, Mrs. Johnson heard a loud crack, over her shoulder, followed by two more. She assumed it was firecrackers. The next thing she knew, the motorcade was speeding and the Secret Service had forced her and her husband down in their seats. The car stopped in front of a building, and Mrs. Johnson saw a sign: HOSPITAL. Only then did she realize what had happened. Mrs. Kennedy was detained outside the emergency surgery room; Lady Bird Johnson went to be with her. She had always thought of Mrs. Kennedy as “insulated,” she said later, but now found her “quite alone.”
later, on Air Force One, when Judge Sarah Hughes administered the presidential oath of office to LBJ, the three of them stood there together in the cramped cabin. As Johnson raised his right hand, Lady Bird stood at his right, and Jacqueline Kennedy at his left, explaining her presence by saying, “I think I ought to. In the light of history, it would be better if I was there.”
“Oh, Lady Bird, we’ve liked you two so much,” she told the new First Lady.
Struck by the sight of “that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood,” Mrs. Johnson asked if she wanted to change clothes. The woman she always thought of as “gentle” now showed a “fierceness.” “I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” she said.
The day after President Kennedy’s funeral, Jackie invited Lady Bird up for tea, offered household details on running the mansion, and then said, “Don’t be frightened of this house—some of the happiest years of my marriage have been spent here …”
That same day she wrote Lyndon a remarkably personal letter, recalling not only his defying the Secret Service to walk behind the caisson the day before but years of friendship and support. For the first time she addressed him in writing by his new title:
Dear Mr. President:
Thank you for walking yesterday—behind Jack. You did not have to do that—I am sure many people forbid you to take such a risk—but you did it anyway.
Thank you for your letters to my children. What those letters will mean to them later—you can imagine. The touching thing is, they have always loved you so much, they were most moved to have a letter from you now.
And most of all Mr. President, thank you for the way you have always treated me—the way you and Lady Bird have always been to me—before, when Jack was alive, and now as President.
I think the relationship of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential families could be a rather strained one. From the history I have been reading ever since I came to the White House I gather it often was in the past.
But you were Jack’s right arm—and I always thought the greatest act of a gentleman that I had seen on this earth—was how you—the Majority Leader when he came to the Senate as just another little freshman who looked up to you and took orders from you, could then serve as Vice President to a man who had served under you and been taught by you—
But more than that we were friends, all four of us. …
It was so strange last night. I was wandering through this house—
There in the Treaty Room is your chandelier, and I had framed—the page we all signed—you—Senator Dirksen and Mike Mansfield—underneath I had written ‘The day the Vice President brought the East Room chandelier back from the Capitol.’…
You see all you gave—and now you are called on to give so much more.
Your office—you are the first President to sit in it as it looks today. Jack always wanted a red rug—and I had curtains designed for it that I thought were as dignified as they should be. …
[She had told a moving man to remove JFK’s marine paintings] because I remembered all the fun Jack had those first days hanging pictures of things he loved, setting out his collection of whales teeth etc.
But of course they are there only waiting for you to ask for them if the walls look too bare. I thought you would want to put things from Texas in it—I pictured some gleaming long horns—I hope you put them somewhere—
It mustn’t be very much help to you your first day in office—to hear children on the lawn at recess. It is just one more example of your kindness that you let them stay —I promise—they will soon be gone—
Thank you Mr. President Respectfully Jackie
The President wrote her on December 1: “Jackie, You have been magnificent and have won a warm place in the heart of history. I only wish things could be different- that I didn’t have to be here. But the Almighty has willed differently, and now Lady Bird and I need your help. …”
the funeral, but before she moved out of the White House to a house in nearby Georgetown, the young widow spoke with the new President about projects that had been important to her and her husband and that might serve to memorialize him.
Sixty-one days after the assassination, a joint resolution of Congress officially renamed the projected building the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Later that year Johnson wrote: “Your request [to appoint her friend Joan Braden as a trustee for the Kennedy Center] will, of course, be instantly granted. I know how much the Center means to the extension of the arts in Washington, D.C. And I also know how deep within you goes your own affection and interest in this enterprise. So much of your handiwork and so much of your own being is in it.”
As she wrote to LBJ on May 16, 1964, of the Kennedy Library: “It is so important to me that we build the finest memorial —so no one will ever forget him—and I shall always remember that you have helped the cause closest to my heart.”
Another project she had pursued with her husband’s support was the renewal of the then shabby Pennsylvania Avenue, an effort fostered by a new commission. As she recalled in an oral-history interview done for the LBJ Library on January 11, 1974, “I thought it might come to an end. I asked President Johnson if he’d be nice enough to receive the commission and sort of give approval to the work they were doing, and he did. It was one of the first things he did.”
Mrs. Kennedy wrote Johnson on October 26, 1964: “Bill Walton has told me of your strong endorsement of the plans of the Pennsylvania Avenue Commission, and I just wanted to express my appreciation. This project meant so much to President Kennedy, and I am most grateful that you are carrying it on.”
Worried that America would eventually forget that Kennedy had initiated the space program and the plan to land a man on the moon, she asked LBJ to rename Cape Canaveral for her husband, a decision she would later regret. “Now that I think back on it,” she said in her oral history, “that was so wrong, and if I’d known [Cape Canaveral] was the name from the time of Columbus, it would be the last thing that Jack would have wanted.”
On her last day in the White House, Mrs. Kennedy went down to the East Room, where, partially hidden behind a screen, she watched President Johnson make the first presentation of the new Presidential Medals of Freedom, which she and her husband had designed together. He awarded one posthumously to the late President. As the other guests left, Mrs. Kennedy slipped out of the mansion. When Lady Bird Johnson walked upstairs to her room, she found a small bouquet of flowers left there. The attached note read: “I wish you a happy arrival in your new house, Lady Bird —Remember—you will be happy here. Love Jackie.”
The President had concrete ways to help Mrs. Kennedy, but it seemed that Lady Bird was still struggling. She wrote to Janet Auchincloss, Jackie’s mother: “Never have I wanted more to comfort a person as I have Jackie, or felt so mute and unable to do so. I feel I know Jackie so much better and my admiration and love for her have grown with each passing hour—if Lyndon could, he would take the stars out of the sky and make her a necklace.”
oral history Mrs. Kennedy recalled those months following the assassination, when President Johnson extended himself in every way to the grieving widow and her two children: “I almost felt sorry for him because I knew he felt sorrv for me. There wasn’t anything anyone could do about it, but I think the situation gave him pain and he tried to do the best he could. And he did, and I was really touched by that generosity of spirit. … I always felt that about him.
“He used to really call up quite a lot in the beginning. He was so nice. They’d always ask me back to the White House, but they understood that I really didn’t want to go back. I don’t think I ever would have gone back if I could have helped it, but when our portraits were presented [in 1971] I sort of had to. … Luci came when we were still in the Harrimans’ house, bringing Christmas presents. She gave John a fire engine. The Cabinet gave me this beautiful vermeil coffee set inscribed with the names of the President and Cabinet Members and close aides at sort of a surprise party when I moved to my new house in Georgetown. I think Bobby and Ethel organized that. The President came to that, completely by surprise. He just went out of his way to do everything like that.”
Mrs. Johnson made several visits to Mrs. Kennedy, hoping to coax her to meetings of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Each time, she noticed the clot of tourist buses in front of the Kennedy home. And Mrs. Kennedy told her, “I cannot return.”
“They’d ask me to every state dinner automatically. Then Mrs. Johnson kept the restoration committee going, and I’d always been asked to that,” she said in the 1974 interview, “but I explained to her in writing and on the telephone that it was really difficult for me and I didn’t really ever want to go back.”
Later that spring of 1964 the new First Lady officially renamed the East Garden of the White House after her predecessor, but Tacqueline declined her invitation to attend the garden’s dedication. In her stead came her mother, Janet Auchincloss. The newspapers reported the incident as a case of Mrs. Kennedy’s snubbing the Johnsons.
“I suppose again that’s where the press makes things very difficult,” said Mrs. Onassis. “That was so generous of Mrs. Johnson to name the garden after me. … That was so nice of her, but she didn’t have to do that. So I suppose if they were saying how awful of me not to come, I can see that was an uncomfortable position for her. I just couldn’t go back to that place.
“I wouldn’t blame them [the Johnsons] at all if they thought sometimes, ‘Listen, couldn’t this girl just—.’”
Mrs. Onassis went on: “Even driving around Washington I’d try to drive a way where I wouldn’t see the White House.”
By the summer of 1964 Jacqueline Kennedy’s secretary issued a brief statement from her Washington home: “Mrs. Kennedy feels that the change in environment in New York from Georgetown and its many memories, will be beneficial to her and her children.”
her removal from the Washington scene, once established in her new apartment on Fifth Avenue, Jacqueline Kennedy kept in touch with the Johnsons.
They saw one another in Atlantic City at the 1964 Demo- cratic Convention. Mrs. Kennedy refused to appear in the hall at any convention session, but she did agree to attend a reception held in her honor, to thank everyone who helped President Kennedy in 1960.
The two women stood together to greet the delegates, but there was much speculation in Atlantic City that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy would seize the nomination from President Johnson. As the convention inevitably turned into a memorial to President Kennedy, a movement grew to anoint his brother as the rightful heir to the New Frontier- especially after RFK addressed the convention in an emotional and moving speech that included a poetic reference to his brother as a “star” outshining the “garish sun,” an image supposedly aimed at LBJ. Johnson himself was nervous about Bobby Kennedy’s ambition and perceived the threat as real.
It was here that the stories of political animosity between the Kennedys and Johnsons began to circulate in earnest. In the end LBJ was renominated. But on election day the newspapers reported that the former First Lady refused to vote for LBJ. The truth was she did not vote for anyone. As she explained in her oral history:
“I know, at least I heard, that he was hurt that I didn’t vote in 1964. People in my own family told me I should vote. I said: Tm not going to vote.’ This is very emotional, but… I’d never voted until I was married to Jack.… This vote would have been—he would have been alive for that vote. And I thought, Tm not going to vote for any [other person] because this vote would have been his.’ Of course, I would have voted for President Johnson. It wasn’t that at all. It was some emotional thing, that he would have been alive. They were all rather cross at me. Not cross, but they’d say, ‘Now please, why don’t you? It will just make trouble. …’
“Bobby said I should vote, and I said, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’m not going to vote.’ It was just completely emotional, and then of course that got blown into I don’t know what.… That was really emotional; it was something a widow would do. It doesn’t make any sense.… But that’s what it was, and nobody approved of it. I think all of the rest of the Kennedy family went and voted.”
Not long after the election, in December 1964, LBJ offered more news about the Kennedy Center, then remarked on their continued correspondence: “I find it a selfish motive, but one over which my disciplines have no power: I enjoy reading a letter from you just for the sheer pleasure of hearing you speak on paper.” He concluded, “Please let my young friends, Caroline and John, know they are loved by the Johnsons.”
The President saw Mrs. Kennedy on several occasions, once at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, for a Kennedy Library fund raiser amid old friends and supporters. In Newport News, Virginia, they both joined in the dedication ceremony of the huge aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy .
By continuing her correspondence with the Johnsons far past the official one-year mourning period and into the new administration, and signing most of her letters to them with “love,” Jackie Kennedy clearly was without any political motivation; it was just a matter of continuing a friendship. Rumors still persisted in 1965 that LBJ would find her a cultural post or appoint her ambassador to the Vatican, France, or Mexico, but Mrs. Kennedy devoted herself to raising her children in New York and honoring her late husband’s memory. In the spring of 1965 President Johnson ordered a government airplane to transport the Kennedy family to England for the dedication of a park to the fallen President at Runnymede. The ceremony proved to be particularly hard on her, as she revealed to LBJ in a letter dated May 16: “It was such an emotional and difficult day for me—so many thoughts] that all my loss surged in me again—”
Jackie and the Johnsons made headlines with the story of her efforts to delete several extremely personal passages in William Manchester’s book The Death of a President . Originally the project had the full cooperation of Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy family, but when Manchester quoted extensive and painful recollections from taped interviews that he conducted with her while she was still in her deepest grief, she asked to have them cut in the final draft. The author refused.
“The worst thing in my life was trying to get all those things of Mr. Manchester’s out of his book,” she recalled in her 1974 tape. “I’ve never read the book. I did my oral history with him in an evening and alone, and it’s rather hard to stop when the floodgates open. I just talked about the private things.
“I know that afterwards there were so many things, one, about the private things, which were mostly expressions of grief of mine and Caroline’s that I wanted to take out of the book. And whether or not they got out, they were all printed around. Now it doesn’t seem to matter so much, but then I had such a feeling.”
She was particularly upset about specific references in Manchester’s galleys to attacks on the Johnsons by the Kennedy loyalists for the way the swearing-in ceremony immediately followed the assassination. Word of her being upset about the negative passages regarding the Johnsons appeared in the papers, and the President immediately wrote her on December 16, 1966: “Lady Bird and I have been distressed to read the press accounts of your unhappiness about the Manchester book. Some of these accounts attribute your concern to passages in the book which are critical or defamatory of us. If this is so, I want you to know while we deeply appreciate your characteristic kindness and sensitivity, we hope you will not subject yourself to any discomfort or distress on our account… your own tranquility is important to both of us, and … We are both grateful to you for your constant and unfailing thoughtfulness and friendship.”
A month earlier, on the third anniversary of the assassination, LBJ had written to Jackie. She responded, “I know it was painful for you to write it—as recalling that day will be painful always for us all.” When he wrote to both of her children, she thanked him. “I was so touched at your taking the trouble—
“You are a marvelous child psychologist—saying just the right thing to a boy and to a girl—.”
In her role as First Lady, Mrs. Johnson continued the restoration of the White House begun by Mrs. Kennedy and again extended an invitation to her, even though, she wrote in an undated 1966 letter, “I certainly understand your feelings about coming back to the White House.”
Although the two women shared a belief in the importance of furthering the White House restoration, they had very different styles. Mrs. Kennedy recommended a European firm to make a china in an antique pattern. Mrs. Johnson eventually had an American firm make it, featuring native wildflowers instead. The question of where to place a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Lady Bird deeply admired and sought to emulate, also reflects their different approaches. Mrs. Kennedy feared that the portrait of a modern figure simply wasn’t appropriate for the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century State Floor. In the end Mrs. Johnson agreed and moved the portrait to the East Wing, as Mrs. Kennedy had recommended.
In a long 1966 memo on legal-size yellow paper, Jackie mixed business with the personal:
… You were sweet to write to me about the Fine Arts meeting—I am sure that whatever you do will be perfect—I saw the prettiest picture of you by a campfire—I hope you have some carefree times like that…
I was trying to think of any thoughts for the meeting. … I know that the 3 things that were vaguely in the works—just waiting for enough money to do them, were the State Dining Room, a state china service, oc really good copies of the Green & Red Room rugs. …
The State china service could be so beautiful—an Empire design that would go with all the magnificent Monroe gilt centerpieces—a simple design that wouldn’t clash with the flowers at different times of [the] year. … Just a word of warning—DON’T let the American china companies do it —I had them trying to copy plates of the Monroe period in the China Room for our first days in the White House. The results always looked more like hotel china … so Jansen [a French firm] is the one to do it with—as they are in everything I am afraid—Everyone else is too decoratorish—they are the only firm in the world with a library of historical documents & the artisans to execute them- luckily they have an N.Y. office—so one avoids the buying it abroad problem! …
[Jackie goes on to say that Jansen should also be chosen to copy the decrepit rugs in the Green and Red rooms.] The Puerto Rican 6c Portuguese & all the other copies always have the wrong colors—not subtle enough for period rooms—I saw the Green Room one—and it just made me sad.
So that’s a thought if you have lots of guidebook money to burn!
The only other thing I can think of is trying to keep the public rooms—ground & 1st floor—as 18th & 19th century as possible—so … it will remain always a glimpse for Americans back into the days of our country’s beginning- I was just wondering if Mrs. Roosevelt’s portrait outside the East Room didn’t bring the 20th century in so much- that it really jars the unity of that whole floor. …
The problem … is always this—one admires and reveres Mrs. Roosevelt—so she should have a place of honor- Why not there? But then later people of different administrations will start according places of honor to their heroes, and the whole harmony of the early years of the White House will be lost.
I think it would be wonderful if you could establish the precedent that that floor would never change. …
I visualize [Mrs. Roosevelt’s] portrait where the portraits of John Barry—the founder of the American Navy was—which makes me think—did Mr. Ryan (who was a temperamental creature) take back those 4 or 5 marvelous early paintings he lent us. … If so—the Fine Arts Committee should threaten, persuade, seduce, coerce him to leave them permanently to the White House! even in his will —Historically—they are important next to the Jefferson & Jackson portraits Bunny Mellon gave to the Blue Room.
These are just thoughts dear Lady Bird—whatever you do will be perfect—I send you much love—and my love to the President—in these always trying days for him.
Happy Easter to you all—
As a 1966 Christmas gift, Mrs. Johnson sent Jackie a set of books of the Louvre Museum’s collection. The recipient’s thank-you note displays more than her ethereal stream-of-consciousness style and her genuine interest in the books.
Dearest Lady Bird:
If you knew how much I love Treasures at the Louvre - It is the most magnificent art book—books rather—that ever was—You can just lose yourself in it for hours. … How did you know that I would rather have that than anything?
I was thinking Christmas Day—in the late afternoon when one had cleared away the wrapping paper and put everyone’s presents into piles, stumbling over John’s train tracks and Caroline’s dolls, I had my modest pile assembled on a big table in the living room—and your books were right next to the two beautiful Canton plates you gave me last year that I always keep there—I was thinking you should have some Christmas prize for your sensitivity in every year finding the most treasured things.
I hope that someone gave you something you love as much … and I hope for you that the New Year will bring you all you hope for—and some days just for yourself- as I have had here—when one can put all one’s cares and obligations aside—
If you are ever in New York and have any free time- you know how I would always love to see you. …
As ever— Affectionately Jackie
1968 Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy had increasingly alienated the antiwar wing of his party, and in March LBJ announced that he would neither seek nor accept another term as President. By June it seemed likely Robert Kennedy would win the nomination.
For her part Jacqueline Kennedy was torn. Privately she vehemently opposed the war, but she withheld public comment on it, as she did on all political issues of the day. She agreed to campaign for her brother-in-law’s presidential bid but ominously told her friend the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that she feared her brother-in-law would meet the same fate as her late husband.
morning of June 5, 1968, the telephone in the bedroom of President and Mrs. Johnson rang at four-twenty, and in New York another early-morning call came through to Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment. Senator Kennedy had been shot; he would die the next day.
The Johnsons immediately sent a telegram to Jackie: “We grieve with you today & know your help must be of great comfort to Ethel [the senator’s widow] at this time of anguish.” Mrs. Johnson and LBJ attended the services in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and at the mass’s conclusion Mrs. Johnson found herself before a stunned Jacqueline Kennedy. “I called out her name and put my hand out,” wrote Mrs. Johnson in her diary. “She looked at me as if from a great distance, as though I were an apparition.” By many accounts Jacqueline was more shell-shocked than she had been in 1963.
Afterward she wrote the Johnsons, in what would be her last note to them jointly: “I do thank you so much for your wire about Bobby- and for all you did, in those sad days,—to make it possible for him to be laid in rest with all the love and care and nobility that meant so much to those who loved him—
“Sometimes there are no words to say things—only this —I am deeply grateful. Thank you—as ever Jackie.”
months later her life wholly changed: shifting from America and Kennedy politics to Europe and her own refuge, she married Aristotle Onassis in October. Two weeks later, with the election of Richard Nixon, LBJ became a lame-duck President. The second assassination, LBJ’s retirement, and Mrs. Kennedy’s remarriage all had happened within the span of six months. The lives of Jacqueline Kennedy and the Johnsons were altered forever. Their close correspondence ceased.
Just after Jackie’s marriage Mrs. Johnson reflected on her friend and predecessor. She believed that “this complete break with the past might be good for her” and went on to say “as a result of the wedding … I feel strangely freer. No shadow walks beside me down the halls of the White House … I wonder what it would have been like if we had entered this life unaccompanied by that shadow?” Four years later Lyndon Johnson died.
The two women eventually renewed their friendship in the next decade. It was at the dedication of the John R Kennedy Library in October 1979 that Jacqueline and Lady Bird saw each other once again. In 1986 Mrs. Onassis invited Mrs. Johnson and her daughter and son-in-law Lynda and Charles Robb to spend an afternoon with her at her home in Martha’s Vineyard, and after that the two women socialized, Lady Bird often spending part of her summer on the Vineyard. When Mrs. Johnson celebrated her eightieth birthday in 1992, Mrs. Onassis sent a congratulatory letter: “Lady Bird has a great heart and tireless energy. Those who know and love her have benefitted from these qualities as have countless others she has never met.”
In August of last year Lady Bird Johnson was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard and Jacqueline Onassis wanted to see her. She invited Mrs. Johnson for an afternoon cruise. It rained, so instead the two old friends had a long lunch together at Mrs. Onassis’s home. It was the last time they were to see each other. When she learned that Mrs. Onassis was ill last winter, Mrs. Johnson wrote her and received a warm note in reply.
In the end it was Mrs. Johnson who survived her predecessor, seventeen years her junior.
Mrs. Johnson was among those select friends invited to attend the funeral of Mrs. Onassis on May 23, 1994. Leaning on a cane, the former First Lady flew up from Texas to attend the service, along with so many other members of the New Frontier. In recalling their friendship of three decades, Lady Bird Johnson remarked of Jacqueline that “in times of hope, she captured our hearts. In tragedy, her courage helped salve a nation’s grief. She was an image of beauty and romance and leaves an empty place in the world as I have known it.”
It is the words of President Johnson in a December 15, 1964, letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, however, that best expresses America’s sense of loss at her sudden death thirty years later: “Time goes by too swiftly, my dear Jackie. But the day never goes by without some tremor of a memory or some edge of a feeling that reminds me of all that you and I went through together.”