LEXINGTON, Ky. (11/22/13) – “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” - President John F. Kennedy
On this date 50 years ago, Air Force One touched down at Love Field in Dallas. Aboard were President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy. The events that were to follow that landing will be forever etched in the hearts and minds of the nation as its 35th president was gunned down while riding in an open motorcade at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
Many are able to recall that fateful day in Dallas, while others may only be able to experience a legacy left behind from JFK's presidency and its abrupt ending. Dean of University of Kentucky Libraries Terry Birdwhistell has a special connection to the Kennedy legacy. He had the experience of a lifetime in May, 1981. Birdwhistell had the opportunity to sit down with Jackie Kennedy, otherwise known as Jackie Onassis, to interview her for a special project he was working on for UK libraries.
Birdwhistell was 30 years old at the time. He was compiling an oral history of Kentucky Sen. John Sherman Cooper. He said the Cooper family had a very close relationship with John and Jackie Kennedy. So, he took a shot in the dark by writing a letter to Jackie Kennedy in hopes of setting up an interview to discuss their relationship with Cooper.
“You have to be young to do such a crazy thing because she didn't do interviews,” said Birdwhistell. “It never occurred to me that she'd turn me down. I just went ahead and sent her a letter. It wasn't very long after that I received a call from her assistant, Nancy Tuckerman, and she said that she wanted to do the interview. It's crazy how that worked out.”
The next thing Birdwhistell knew, he was headed to New York City where Jackie lived at the time. On the day of the interview, a nerve-stricken Birdwhistell rode the elevator to the 15th floor where Jackie O' lived, and knocked on her door.
“A doorman answered the door and then standing right behind him was Jackie Kennedy ready to greet me,” said Birdwhistell. “Other than it being Jackie Kennedy, it was not unlike any other interview situation I'd ever been in really in terms of somebody meeting you, greeting you, and getting ready to do an interview.”
Birdwhistell said Kennedy led him to a rather small library room facing Central Park. They sat down on a small sofa in the room, and Kennedy had her staff bring in some sandwiches and drinks.
“I was in no way able to eat anything,” a laughing Birdwhistell said.
Upon beginning the interview, Birdwhistell said Murphy's Law took over and he began having problems with his recorder. He said an earpiece connected to the recorder was not producing any sound, and panic began to set in.
“I had to make a decision. Of course, I couldn't continue without verifying it was recording because how disastrous would that be? So, I stopped the interview and rewound the tape and played back in the earphone. Nothing. I rewound the tape again and pulled out the earphone and it played. There it was. The problem was in the earphone,” said Birdwhistell.
When Birdwhistell began recording again, he said you can hear Jackie Kennedy say, “Is it working now?,” a memory he can only laugh about now.
Much of Birdwhistell's conversation with Jackie Kennedy revolved around the relationship between the Kennedy family and the Cooper family. He said he didn't feel it was appropriate to talk about her life and experiences, considering the reason he was granted the interview was because of his relationship with Sen. Cooper.
“I started the interview like I'd done so many. Finding out how she got to know John Sherman Cooper and having her trace she and President Kennedy's friendship with the Cooper's over the years, about the way Cooper and Kennedy were such close friends and about how they worked together in the Senate, and how one being a Republican and one being a Democrat, how that worked out,” said Birdwhistell.
Birdwhistell said Kennedy also shared funny experiences the couple had with the Coopers. Jackie referred to Cooper as Judge Cooper because he was a county judge, which Birdwhistell said he found fascinating.
“To her, Cooper represented what she liked about American politics,” said Birdwhistell. “She compared him to Jefferson. She compared him to Lincoln. She really, really liked him.”
Birdwhistell's experience with Jackie Kennedy is one he will never forget. He said the interview reminded him that no matter how much notoriety someone has, they're still just a human being.
“When you're able to be in a situation like that with one of the most famous people in the world, it just reminds you that everybody is the same. Again, I wasn't there as a TV reporter. We weren't filming a documentary. We were there to talk about her friend John Sherman Cooper. She just did what any person would do when talking about a close, personal friend. She expressed the same types of emotions. Having me there in her home, she couldn't have been nicer — just a regular person, which helped me a lot,” said Birdwhistell.
Birdwhistell said Jackie signed a release form, which is still held in the archives of UK libraries, along with the recorded interview. He could not be happier with how the interview turned out and the piece of history of his own that he added to the UK libraries.
“I was just amazed that she was in no hurry to end our conversation and until the very end just remained as cordial and as pleasant as she could be. But, I was very relieved when I left,” said Birdwhistell laughing.
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