Had it not been for the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy was married to the President of the United States, it is unlikely that a single book about her would have been written. And yet, in the dozens of books about her, specific details of that presidency have been largely excluded. Even more striking, and of greater consequence, is the fact that the histories of John F. Kennedy's presidency are comparably flawed, missing as they do the story of Jacqueline Kennedy and her crucial role. In an effort to fill the gap, I have tried to tell her story in those years with as much attention to the presidency as to the events of her private life. The role of Jacqueline Kennedy is probably less understood than any other part of the Kennedy presidency; equally, her personal story cannot be grasped without seeing it in the context of the unfolding events of one of the twentieth century's most dramatic presidencies. Her life was changed by historical events in ways she had never anticipated. She, in turn, influenced certain of those events in ways that until now have remained largely unexamined.
The chronicle of any presidency is incomplete without a consideration of the president's private life. That is even more true in the case of John F. Kennedy, because his private life repeatedly put his presidency at risk. Oddly, Kennedy's detractors -- those seeking to portray his so-called dark side -- have largely excluded Jackie from their versions of events, every bit as much as his apologists have. I would argue that one can come to terms neither with Kennedy's darker aspects nor with his fundamental decency -- nor, ultimately, with what was perhaps his most stunning unfinished achievement, his own personal struggle against unimaginable odds for a moral compass -- without being intimately familiar with the unusual nature of his life with her.
What follows is Jacqueline Kennedy's story in the White House years told fully for the first time in the larger and inseparable context of the presidency. It is also, in important ways, the story of the Kennedy presidency, with a tremendous missing piece filled in. To view the presidency afresh, rather than start with published memoirs and established histories, I have reconstructed the story from scratch, using the vast documentation produced during the Kennedy administration: letters, memos, transcripts, reports, diaries, and other primary sources. Using Secret Service reports of presidential movements, appointment books, gate logs, and other records, I have tracked the President and First Lady, as well as their intimates and associates, on a day-by-day, often minute-by-minute basis. With the aid of transcripts and minutes of meetings, I listened to what was actually said, by Kennedy himself and by key participants, during the many tumultuous events that made this presidency such an exciting one. I followed the President afterward, whether upstairs to the family quarters or to the Kennedys' weekend retreat in the country, to see him unwind with his wife and close friends. I considered what certain of those friends had to say about the Kennedys, whether in letters or diaries of the period, or in interviews. And I listened carefully to Jackie's own voice, in letters and other documents.
No experience can have been more valuable to me than the opportunity to study Jackie's extraordinarily moving, uncharacteristically frank correspondence with Harold Macmillan, written after her husband's death. As I encountered the passionate, emotionally turbulent, unguarded voice in those letters, and made sense of the allusions, both hers and Macmillan's, to certain defining events in the presidency, I was struck by how little has ever really been known about Jacqueline Kennedy or her intimate life with Jack in the White House years. In telling that story, it is my hope that, as I did, the reader will come to a better and more sympathetic understanding of two flawed but good and remarkable people, both of whom, each in his or her own way, came to exemplify the virtue both valued most: courage.
Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Leaming