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The Sunday Conversation: Caroline Kennedy

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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

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

Right. They don’t really start until almost halfway through — July ’62. So no one’s quite sure, and there isn’t a really accurate explanation. I was always told it was a combination of things, one, that especially after the Bay of Pigs he had gotten what he considered poor advice from the military and then there was a lot of debate about who had said what. And I think he wanted an accurate record of things going forward, but they weren’t installed until quite a while after that. So it rings true to me that he was interested in history, he wrote a historical bestseller, he loved reading history, he loved reading diaries. So he was probably thinking that he wanted a historical record; he would write his own book one day, his memoir. He was interested in new technology; he was interested in innovative uses for technology, so this was technology that was just becoming available at the time.

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Speaking of the Cuban missile crisis, it was interesting to hear how much bad advice he was given.

I know.

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And his strength to resist it. Was it known that he thought he could have been impeached for resisting the military’s calls to invade Cuba?

He certainly was walking a tightrope. It’s incredible when you listen to the generals. It gives you such a vivid, visceral sense of the competing pressures on a president. I hope that people will get a sense of how complex this is, but these are also real people dealing with these issues, and they don’t know what the consequences of their decisions are going to be. That’s why it’s important to have a president with judgment and character and wisdom.

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What do you conclude in comparing present to past, in terms of what makes a successful contemporary politician?

I think you get an appreciation for the intersection of a person and their time. I think President Obama is that, just as my father was that. Somebody comes along every once in a while who really captures the spirit of our country. It’s not so much in the tapes, but it is to me the most powerful legacy of my father and the people he inspired. I was campaigning somewhat this past election, and everywhere I go, people will tell me they got involved in politics because of my father when they were young. So I think there’s this continuity of spirit that needs to be renewed every so often. And bringing a whole generation into the process is really what President Obama was talking about when he got choked up the other day.

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I know you’ve been a strong supporter of President Obama since 2008. What was your reaction to Paul Ryan invoking your father’s legacy during the vice presidential debate?

I love it when Republicans invoke my father’s legacy. I’m glad that they now appreciate his leadership.

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