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The Sunday Conversation: Caroline Kennedy

The former president's daughter discusses 'Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.'

November 25, 2012|By Irene Lacher
  • Caroline Kennedy in Hollywood on Nov. 14, 2012.
Caroline Kennedy in Hollywood on Nov. 14, 2012. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Caroline Kennedy, the only living child of JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy, wrote the foreword to "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy." The new book consists of a curated collection of taped conversations in the holdings of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, the last of which was released this year.

Most people associate secret tapes with Nixon. I wasn't aware that Kennedy had them too. Do you know whether he was the first president to do that?

I don't think so. There's an interesting entry in the book where A. Philip Randolph is making a pitch on civil rights and it turns out that 20 years before he made a similar one to Roosevelt, so I think it started with President Roosevelt. I think it was much more primitive and not as many tapes were made. Of course, they became infamous during President Nixon and made the subject quite controversial, provocative. When you read these, you initially think that's a bad thing to tape people who don't know they're being taped. But when you read this you think this is an incredible historical resource. It's a wonderful record, and it's a fascinating way to introduce people to history. So I think we see both sides of it.

Why are they being released to the general public now?

We've undertaken as part of the 50th anniversary of my father's administration a number of projects. The biggest effort we made at the Kennedy Library was the digital archive of all my father's papers and correspondence and pictures of him so they're not just available to researchers in Boston, they're available worldwide. So then we released the oral history that my mother did last year, and now we're doing this book. These tapes have been available.

All of them?

They have come out over time. They started to be opened I think in the early '80s, late '70s and they've come out in batches as they've been processed and declassified. And so the last batch was finally completed last January. And I think I've been guided by this idea that my father, my mother loved history. They thought it was exciting and inspirational, that the stories of the past could really teach us about our own time. And if you present people with the actual raw historical information, they can make up their own mind about what they think. So it's really about making this history accessible and available easily. There's a two-hour meeting and we pick the 10 minutes that are really the heart of it, and not the rest. But if you went to Boston you'd have to listen to the two hours. It's not that they haven't been available, but they kind of haven't been available. They've been hiding in plain sight.

Can you talk about the dinner party conversation?

The dinner party conversation I think is a wonderful, very unique tape recording because it was done in January 1960 right before my father announced his candidacy for the presidency. And so he's talking about what kind of person succeeds in politics. And I think he realizes that the times are changing, but you can tell that he feels that he's right for the times. So it's very prophetic. He didn't know whether he would be successful or not, but he talks about the kind of political personality that was successful in the 19th century versus his own time. And I think in reading that you begin to think about what kind of person is successful today. And that wasn't part of the White House taping system. That was done by Jim Cannon at a dinner party. He was a very well-known and respected journalist. And Ben Bradlee [who went on to become executive editor of the Washington Post] was there and his wife and my parents, so it was a freewheeling conversation. And you can really see his thoughts coalesce.

One of the most interesting things about these tapes to me is that now we know how all these things turned out, but the people who were being taped didn't know, and that was true when he was a young man and also during some of the most dramatic moments of his presidency, whether it was civil rights crises or the Cuban missile crisis.

Why did your father start taping? He wasn't making tapes at the beginning of his administration.

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