- Historic Sites
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
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
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.