To many Americans, she was the graceful Queen of Camelot, whose handsome King reigned for only a thousand days. To others, she was the perfect presidential spouse, a personification of what a First Lady should be: well dressed, willing, and accessible. But where Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy is concerned, myth often obscures reality. Though Jacqueline Kennedy's tenure as First Lady is often reduced to her stylish fashions and her "redecoration" of the White House, this description fails to acknowledge her political activism.
Though her upbringing, education, and personal style guaranteed that she would become one of the nation's most popular First Ladies, the position was one she neither coveted nor sought. And though her regal bearing and refined beauty enthralled the public and press alike, Jackie often disdained their affection and avoided regular contact with both groups, fiercely guarding her privacy as well as that of her children. Despite her desire to be left alone, Jackie understood that as First Lady she could not "expect to be a completely private person." She knew that as wife to the President of the United States, she would have "an official role" that demanded a certain amount of "grace."
Beyond acknowledging the duties incumbent on a First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy also believed that "presidents' wives have an obligation to contribute something." To that end, Jackie was supportive of various associations, such as the American Association of Maternal and Infant Health, the American Cancer Society, and the Girl Scouts. Following in the steps of predecessor Abigail Fillmore, Jackie addressed the paucity of books in the White House library. Believing that the presidential collection should include the most significant works of American literature and history, she asked a committee of scholars to choose 1500 volumes—the most the room could hold—and to make the list available to the public.
But perhaps Jackie's most significant contribution, and certainly one of her most well-known, was the restoration of the White House. Abhorring the term "redecoration," the First Lady was committed to renovating and restoring the presidential mansion, thus making the White House a living museum of history. She inventoried its artwork and furnishings and was integral in the campaign to acquire the furniture and paintings that had once graced its rooms. She worked with art experts and government insiders to promote her project, and charmed private collectors into donating period pieces for White House rooms. At the conclusion of the renovation, she proudly displayed the results of her work by guiding Americans on a televised tour of the White House.
Millions watched the hour-long program and thousands flocked to the White House for a personal look. Many tourists chose to remember their visit by purchasing the first historical guidebook to the White House—a text written by Jacqueline Kennedy herself. The guidebooks raised several millions of dollars for the new nonprofit White House Historical Association, an organization that purchased items for the White House collection and directed programs educating Americans about the rich past of the presidential mansion. Jackie further guaranteed the historical legacy of the White House through her support of legislation that encouraged donations of furnishings, artwork, and furniture, and forbade Presidents from giving away these items as gifts. Donations to the White House increased as people realized that their bequests would not end up as souvenirs.
Jacqueline's influence on historic preservation was not limited to the presidential mansion. She became involved in projects throughout Washington, DC, that preserved buildings of historical significance, such as the Executive Office Building and those in Lafayette Square, a residential area across the street from the White House. She also generated interest on a local level as community leaders flooded the White House with inquiries about restoration and about gaining landmark status for homes and buildings. Her support of historic preservation also reached beyond the United States as she brought international attention to the thirteenth-century B.C. temples of Abu Simbel that were in danger of being flooded by Egypt's Aswan Dam.
Jacqueline Kennedy's appreciation of culture and art influenced her conduct as First Lady in other ways as well. She was determined to make the White House a "showcase" for American talent and hosted dinners where eminent scholars, musicians, and artists debated, entertained, and mingled with guests. Shakespeare readings, balletic performances, and musical recitals headlined the White House social calendar as Jackie worked to elevate the arts in America. But like her White House restoration, the First Lady envisioned a national commitment to the arts that would outlast her tenure. Indeed, her ultimate goal was to establish a Department of the Arts headed by a cabinet-level position. Though this particular dream never materialized, Jackie's support of the arts was vital to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities, both of which were created during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Although Jackie Kennedy was highly visible when campaigning on behalf of the arts, she was often invisible when it came to most everything else. Jackie rarely attended public gatherings, often asking mother-in-law Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, "second lady" Lady Bird Johnson, or even the President to go in her stead. She limited her availability to reporters and restricted media access to her children. Despite her desire for privacy, Jackie nevertheless realized the importance of good press, having been an "Inquiring Photographer" before her marriage. To that end, she did make available some photographs of herself and the children, and she invited journalists to social events.
Jackie's inaccessibility, elegance, and her cool reserve irritated those who believed the President and his First Lady were just two American citizens, no better or worse than the general public. Indeed, many in this camp found her "redecoration" of the White House, along with her expensive antiques and her showcasing of French food and classic entertainments, befitting a style foreign to the average American. Even the President worried that his wife's expensive tastes would focus negative attention—yet again—on his own privileged background. Despite criticism from both within and without the White House, Jackie persevered in her approach, much to the delight of those Americans who believed that the executive mansion should represent the best of what the United States had to offer.
Despite her expensive tastes, Jacqueline Kennedy's tenure as First Lady comprised more than costly restorations and lavish entertainments. Jackie possessed a political side which found expression in subtle ways. Her support of civil rights showed in her integration of daughter Caroline's school class, in her support for a memorial to black activist Mary McLeod Bethune, in her visits to poverty-stricken areas of Washington, DC, and in her request that a black opera singer entertain at the White House. She was interested in her husband's political agenda, especially his plans for a space program, but kept her interest—and her resentment at those who voted against his policies—secret. She also insisted on remaining in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis instead of relocating to an underground shelter.
But it was through Jackie's personal style, far more than her politically tinged actions, that Americans came to know her. Famous for her pillbox hats, her big-buttoned suits, and her bouffant hairstyle, Jacqueline Kennedy was a fashion icon who set clothing trends imitated by millions. Generally well-liked at home, Jackie was also a hit abroad—and for more than just her clothes and accessories. Her fluency in languages guaranteed that her trips to Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and France were highly successful; she addressed the Latin American crowds in Spanish and discussed French art and culture in the vernacular with the indomitable Charles De Gaulle. In South America, her personal popularity translated into public support for her husband's Alliance for Progress, and in France, Jackie was so esteemed that the President quipped that he was "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." She would also improve American relations with both India and Pakistan as her personal popularity breached political differences.
She is perhaps most famous, however, for her courage in the aftermath of her husband's assassination. Her strength and resolve were evident when, in her blood-spattered coat, she stood next to Lyndon Baines Johnson at his swearing-in, when she took her place in President Kennedy's funeral processional, and as she helped the nation grieve. Although a reluctant First Lady who did not altogether enjoy her years in the White House, she imbued the role with a grace, elegance, and style that Americans have come to expect of the President's spouse.