- 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
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 .
“I know, at least I heard, that [LBJ] was hurt that I didn’t vote in 1964.”
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.”