Miller Center

Next →
Long-Term Fix for Highway Trust Fund
← Previous
Reagan Officials Reflect on KAL 007

You might also like...

Escaping Quagmires: Ted Kennedy and the Vietnam War (09/22/16)

Day 12: “I Know Your Christmas Won’t Be What It Ought To Be” (12/12/15)

American Forum: Fred Logevall on Will Syria Be Obama’s Vietnam? (12/02/15)

Jacqueline Kennedy: The First Lady Who Coined “Camelot” (11/10/15)

Ted Kennedy and the Presidents (09/08/15)

Presidential Speech Archive

American President: A Reference Resource

Presidential Recordings

Presidential Oral Histories

← Return to Riding The Tiger

What if Jackie Kennedy Had Lived to Celebrate Her 85th Birthday?

Alternative histories are intriguing, but, until recently, I thought they were simply entertaining fictionalized accounts of historical events. Journalist Jeff Greenfield’s Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternative Histories of American Politics is among the best of this genre.  (See Greenfield’s Miller Center forum at

Academic historians, however, occasionally use counterfactuals to determine the relationships between cause and effect. For example, if Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election, would the United States have invaded Iraq in 2003? (See Miller Center event with Frank P. Harvey, author of Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence at

As First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s birthday (July 28, 1929) approached, I began to ponder what she would be like today had she not succumbed to lymphoma in 1994. She is frozen in many memories as the glamorous wife of President John F. Kennedy, only 31 years of age when she entered the White House, or as his stoic widow creating the Camelot legend after his assassination a thousand days later. But what if Jackie Kennedy had lived to celebrate her 85th birthday? No doubt, she would have found a way to counteract the ravages of time, particularly if she had kicked her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Equally certain, “Jackie O” would have remained a fashion icon, at least for the well-heeled senior jet set.

Yet a fictional narrative took shape in my mind that moved beyond Botox and wardrobe. How might a longer-lived Jacqueline Kennedy have shaped American politics? Consider this chain of imagined events based on the fact that Jackie purportedly feared for her son’s safety if he pursued his life-long interest in piloting airplanes. To ease his mother’s mind, JFK Jr. didn’t receive his pilot’s license until after her passing. If she were still alive, and John hadn’t learned to fly out of deference to her, he wouldn’t have perished in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard fifteen years ago when the plane he ineptly piloted crashed, killing him, his wife, and her sister.

Also spiraling downward at that time was John’s glossy political magazine George, so he might have been searching for a new job in 2000. Some operatives and family members were encouraging him to run for the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s U.S. Senate seat in New York. Although Camelot’s heir apparent had eschewed elective office, he never completely ruled it out. What if he had elbowed Hillary Clinton out of the race and won an Empire State Senate seat, as had his beloved uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, in 1964? 

With no Senate experience on her résumé, it is unlikely that former First Lady Hillary Clinton could have run for president in 2008 or been appointed secretary of state the next year. On the other hand, would JFK Jr. have bowed to a Camelot restoration movement in 2008 and made a bid for the Oval Office, where he had played as a toddler? A year older than Barack Obama and backed by the Kennedy machine led by Uncle Teddy (Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who therefore wouldn’t have supported the African-American senator from Illinois), John F. Kennedy Jr. might have been sworn into the presidency in January 2009, with his mother and sister Caroline proudly looking on. Unfortunately for Caroline, a presidential administration for her brother would mean no coveted ambassadorship to Japan for her, as bestowed by President Obama.  

In this alternative narrative, when JFK Jr. gave up his Senate seat, Hillary could have thrown her chapeau into the ring to be appointed to that position. Presuming her subsequent election as senator, she would have more than a term on Capitol Hill under her belt heading toward the 2016 race to return to the Executive Mansion. Additional advantages would be an absence of the Benghazi tragedy on her record, as well as no quarter-million-dollar honoraria to explain. Would Hillary Clinton be a stronger candidate for president in 2016 if Jacqueline Kennedy hadn’t died in 1994?

Professor Barbara A. Perry is a senior fellow and co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at UVA’s Miller Center, where she directs the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project. She is the author of non-fiction books on the Kennedys: Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier and Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch.  Her Miller Center American Forum on Rose Kennedy can be viewed at 

Date edited: 07/28/2014 (11:28AM)


Rules for Comments

We reserve the right to remove any post or user.

Things that will get comments edited/deleted:

  • Offensive or abusive language or behavior
  • Misrepresentation (i.e., claiming to be somebody you're not) – using a “handle” is fine as long as it isn’t offensive, abusive, or misrepresentative
  • Posting of copyrighted materials
  • Spam, solicitations, or advertisements of any kind

We hope these rules will keep the discussion lively and on topic.




Add your comments:

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

← Return to Riding The Tiger