What Impact Did Jackie Kennedy Have as First Lady? | History Hit

What Impact Did Jackie Kennedy Have as First Lady?

J. Randy Taraborrelli paints an unforgettable new portrait of Jackie Kennedy in his book, 'Jackie - Public, Private, Secret', based on hundreds of interviews with friends, family, and lovers over a 30 period - as well as previously unreleased material from the JFK Library.

Amy Irvine

01 Aug 2023
Image Credit: St. Martin's Press / Macmillan

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the stylish and charismatic wife of President John F. Kennedy, made a profound impact during her time as First Lady of the United States from 1961 to 1963.

In his revealing biography, ‘Jackie: Public, Private, Secret’ – our Book of the Month for August 2023 – Kennedy historian J. Randy Taraborrelli paints an unforgettable new portrait of Jackie Kennedy. Based on hundreds of interviews with friends, family, and lovers over a 30 period – as well as previously unreleased material from the JFK Library – Taraborrelli reveals a woman whose flaws and contradictions only served to make her even more iconic.

Jackie Kennedy’s grace, elegance, and enduring style have immortalised her as a cultural icon, but her influence extended beyond fashion. Alongside her efforts to restore the White House, promote arts and culture, and support humanitarian causes, Jackie Kennedy’s dedication to public service played a crucial role in shaping America’s perception of the presidency, enhancing its cultural identity and its representation on the world stage.

Here we explore the wider political impact of America’s most famous First Lady.

Marriage to John F. Kennedy

In 1952, Jackie met John F. Kennedy at a dinner party in Washington, D.C. The pair quickly became smitten, bonding over their shared Catholicism, experiences of living abroad and enjoyment of reading and writing.

Although Kennedy’s political career meant frequent time apart, their love deepened, and he proposed within 6 months of their meeting after the November Senate election. Their engagement was announced in June 1953, and the pair married on 12 September 1953, in a lavish ceremony deemed the social event of the year.

Jackie Kennedy with her husband as he campaigns for the presidency in Appleton, Wisconsin, March 1960

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Photo © by Jeff Dean - then a student at Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin / CC

Role in JFK’s campaign trail

Having experienced personal setbacks in their early marriage (including a miscarriage and stillborn daughter) Jackie joined John during his campaigns so they could spend more time together with their young daughter, Caroline. As John’s political career grew, Jackie skilfully balanced her desire for privacy with public expectations of her as a potential First Lady, becoming beloved and admired.

Jackie actively participated in John’s congressional campaign, appearing at rallies and advising on his image. Her presence drew noticeably larger crowds to his political rallies; Kennedy later acknowledged Jackie had been “simply invaluable” on the campaign trail.

Jackie became pregnant shortly into John’s presidential campaign and limited her public appearances, but continued to answer campaign mail, present TV commercials, give interviews and write Campaign Wife, a syndicated column. Jackie faced intense media attention, particularly regarding her fashion and personal style. Whilst her wardrobe was envied, some criticised her expensive choices. In response she emphasised her campaign work, and avoided public discussions about her clothing.

Despite her pregnancy preventing her from attending John’s nomination for presidency, Jackie proved instrumental in securing contacts to help with ideas and speeches for his third TV debate, and appeared with John in a joint TV interview.

Fredrik Logevall joined me on the pod to discuss the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy. By the time of his assassination in 1963, John F. Kennedy stood at the helm of the greatest power the world had ever seen. Born in 1917 to a striving Irish-American family that had ascended the ranks of Boston's political machine, Kennedy was bred for public service and he rose meteorically to become America's youngest president.
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First Lady

Shortly after JFK won the US presidential election, Jackie gave birth to their first son. JFK was sworn in as president on 20 January 1961, and aged 31, Jackie became the third youngest First Lady in US history, and the first to have an infant since the turn of the century.

The Kennedys’ ‘Camelot’ differed from their predecessors in political affiliation, youth, and their media relationship, embracing a more vague and TV-orientated approach to appearances. The first presidential wife to hire a press secretary, Jackie carefully managed her media interactions, avoiding public statements and controlling the extent her children were photographed.

While Jackie prioritised taking care of the President, she believed that raising children well was of utmost importance. The media portrayed Jackie as an ideal woman, attracting positive public attention worldwide which helped JFK’s administration gain allies and international support for Cold War policies.

President Kennedy and Jackie with their two children, Caroline and John, photographed at their summer house in Hyannis Port, 1962.

White House restoration

As First Lady, Jackie Kennedy’s first and most enduring legacy was the restoration and preservation of the White House. Dismayed by its lack of historical furnishings and information during her tourist visit in 1941, she aimed to make it “the most perfect house in the United States”, and also create family-friendly quarters, establishing a school room and a nursery.

Jackie believed the White House should reflect America’s artistic history and be furnished with antiques in the style of past presidents. Within a month of becoming First Lady, she formed the White House Fine Arts Committee to oversee the restoration, personally going through storage rooms to find forgotten pieces from former presidents, including Washington and Lincoln.

To avoid using public money, she co-founded the non-profit White House Historical Association in 1961 to fundraise for the project. The association produced the first official White House guidebook in 1962, with Jackie actively involved in its creation.

In February 1962, Jackie showcased the newly restored White House to the public in a CBS film, opening it up to ordinary American viewers for the first time. Her attention to detail and appreciation for art and design earned her global admiration, with a record audience of 80 million viewers. Jackie was given an honorary Emmy Award, and her efforts instilled pride in American history and culture.

Jackie also oversaw the creation of a natural sanctuary in the president’s Rose Garden, just outside the Oval Office, for greeting special visitors and large groups. She preserved period buildings like Lafayette Park, and was instrumental in creating a new national cultural complex. (She was also involved rescuing the ancient Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel from Aswan Dam floodwaters.)

Promoting arts and culture

The Kennedys introduced a youthful spirit to the White House, viewing it as a place to celebrate American history, culture, and achievement.

Jackie recognised the importance of elevating the role of arts, and in supporting artists, musicians, writers, and performers – actively planning state occasions where the White House hosted performances showcasing American talents. The White House thus became a hub where authors, scientists, artists, musicians and actors mingled with politicians, diplomats, and statesmen.

Diplomacy and international relations

As First Lady, Jackie served as an unofficial cultural ambassador, promoting cultural exchange and diplomatic relations during international visits and state dinners. Her intelligence, poise, and fluency in French, Spanish and Italian made her a valuable diplomatic asset, impressing foreign dignitaries and strengthening America’s global image and international ties.

Jackie made numerous official visits to foreign countries, both with her husband and on her own – surpassing any of the preceding First Ladies. Her ability to speak French and extensive knowledge of French history charmed the public during the Kennedys’ visit to France, leading President Kennedy to quip that he was “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” She received the French Legion of Honour, the first First Lady and American woman to be honoured with this distinction.

Even amidst the Cold War, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was taken with Jackie’s presence, and sent her a puppy as a gift, the offspring of Strelka who had gone into space during a Soviet space mission.

Humanitarian and social causes

Jackie Kennedy also utilised her position to advocate for humanitarian and social causes. She championed the rights of children with disabilities, raising awareness of their challenges and advocating for improved services and support.

Additionally she supported the arts in education, recognising the importance of nurturing creativity in young minds.

Style icon

Despite her numerous commitments as First Lady, Jackie Kennedy’s impeccable style became one of her most iconic legacies. Her timeless elegance, characterised by classic yet modern silhouettes and European-inspired designs, became known as the ‘Jackie Look’ and was widely imitated.

Jackie favoured clean lines, sheath dresses, pillbox hats, and oversized sunglasses, creating a signature style that women worldwide sought to emulate. Her preference for American designers also helped put American fashion on the international map.

Tragedy and legacy

After the death of her infant son Patrick in August 1963, Jackie became depressed, and accepted an invitation to her friend Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’s yacht to recuperate. This garnered disapproval, but Jackie returned in October 1963.

Her husband’s famous assassination a month later on 22 November 1963 left Jackie a widow aged 34, with two young children. Despite her grief, she demonstrated remarkable resilience under pressure, serving as a model of strength to the traumatised American people. She planned the president’s state funeral, earning global admiration for her courage and dignity.

Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One at Love Field Airport, 2 hours and 8 minutes after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas. Jackie Kennedy (right), still in her blood-soaked clothes, looks on.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Cecil W. Stoughton / Public Domain

Following JFK’s death, Jackie continued contributing to cultural endeavours including the creation of the John F. Kennedy Library, and worked as an editor in New York City. In 1968 she married Aristotle Onassis, which received mixed reactions but reflected her pursuit of personal happiness and stability.

After Onassis’ death in 1975, Jackie pursued a successful career in publishing. She died on 19 May 1994 aged 64, having made an enduring impact as America’s most iconic First Lady.

John Randall Anthony Taraborrelli is an American journalist and author of more than 20 celebrity biographies including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. He is also an entertainment news reporter on programmes including Entertainment Tonight, Good Morning America, Today and CBS This Morning.
His book, Jackie – Public, Private, Secret is published by St Martin’s Press at Macmillan, and is published on 22 August 2023.

Cover of ‘Jackie: Public, Private, Secret’ by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Image Credit: St Martin's Press

Amy Irvine