I live in two worlds. But my present only had Altaf Hussain singing a filmi song and Doc Zulfi Mirza screeching invectives while swearing on the Holy Book. It was with that spirit I positioned myself to watch a one-hour Jacqueline Kennedy special on ABC hosted by the ever-gentle Dianne Sawyer. Jackie ‘O’ made waves when she began to make fun of people she knew back in the early 1960s. Her voice was breathy, tremulous and peppermint fresh.
It was the voice of a 34-year-old woman who had lost her husband only four months before. The young widow agreed to sit down and record an eight-hour interview with her trusted friend Arthur Schlesinger, an aide of her late husband, President John Kennedy.
Why did it take 47 years for the JFK Library in Boston to make the tapes public? The only surviving child of the Kennedys, Caroline Kennedy said her mother had requested that the tapes be kept sealed for 50 years. “But since this year marks the 50th anniversary of my father’s presidency, I decided to make them public.” Snarly comments made by the First Lady about VIPs add a lot more colour and perspective to how the First Couple during their White House days formulated their opinions.
Take for example Prime Minister Nehru and his daughter, Indira. When Nehru visited the US in November 1961, President Kennedy called it as “the worst head-of-State visit” and is quoted in the book commenting on Nehru’s last days in power: “It's like the town preacher being caught in the whorehouse.” During the visit, the men had lunch in the dining room while Jackie got stuck with Indira and had a hen party in the living room. Here’s what Jackie says of Indira in the tapes: “She is a real prune, bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don't like her a bit. It always looks like she's been sucking a lemon"!
Wrote Maureen Dowd of the New York Times about Jackie as “Deliciously original, glamorous and compelling political spouse we’ll ever see. Her snobbery was mostly directed at the self-regarding, incompetent, inconsiderate, hypocritical and power crazed. She was a geisha and prided herself on it, saying ‘It was really a rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic relationship which we (Jack and Jackie) had.’ But the young Jacqueline Kennedy underestimated herself in those dark days long ago. She had plenty of opinions of her own, tart and tantalising.”
Jackie Kennedy who visited Pakistan with her beautiful sister Lee Radziwill in 1962 hated the American Ambassador in Pakistan. We hear her talk about Walter McConaughy as someone who had no idea of Pakistani culture. After her visit to Khyber Pass, she promptly wrote a letter to her husband alerting him to “what a hopeless ambassador McConaughy was for Pakistan, and all the reasons and all the things I thought the ambassador should be.” She even named possible replacements.
“And Jack was so impressed by that letter,” she says, “that he showed it to Dean Rusk, the secretary of state (whom Mrs Kennedy dismisses as “apathetic and indecisive”). Kennedy told Rusk, “This is the kind of letter I should be getting from the inspectors of embassies.” McConaughy, a career diplomat, continued as ambassador to Pakistan until 1966.
President Charles DeGaulle is an “egomaniac” in Jackie’s words. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is “a phony” whom electronic eavesdropping has found arranging encounters with women. Of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded her husband, Jackie recalls the horrified words of her husband: “Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?”
Jackie Kennedy says something which today is in currency. She calls her mother-in-law Rose Kennedy a “tiger mother.” About Clare Boothe Luce, a former member of Congress and Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the president of South Vietnam, Jackie tells Schlesinger, in a soft whisper, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”
Jackie is shocked by Indonesian President Soekarno when he shows the Kennedys his art collection that he has brought along with him to Washington. Every single one turned out to be of a woman — “naked to the waist with a hibiscus in her hair,” Jackie tells her interviewer. “I caught Jack’s eye, and we were trying not to laugh at each other.” Soekarno was “so terribly happy, and he’d say, ‘This is my second wife, and this was’...” says Jackie. “He had a sort of lecherous look” and “left a bad taste in your mouth.”
As I sit watching and hearing Jackie, my mind races back to almost half a century ago when she came to Lahore. President Ayub Khan’s chivalry was challenged; he personally chaperoned her and her equally fetching sister, Princess Lee Radizwill. The images of Lahore in the ‘60s won’t leave. The Horse and Cattle Show with young Aitchisonians crowned in turquoise turbans handsomely holding lances, flags aflutter, bantered past the VIP stand on stallions, in step with gallant tunes the police band ricocheted. Jackie and Lee were seized by the pageantry Pakistan was so sophisticated at staging.