Interview: Caroline Kennedy, Discussing 'Listening In' The new trove of recordings covers everything from the Cold War to civil rights to Vietnam to the U.S. ice hockey team. Listening In, a new book and CD set, includes more than 260 hours of transcribed conversations and 2.5 hours of audio from inside the Kennedy White House.
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'Listening In' To JFK's Secret White House Recordings

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'Listening In' To JFK's Secret White House Recordings

'Listening In' To JFK's Secret White House Recordings

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March 13, 1963. The Cold War chills the world. The U.S. is drawn deeper into Vietnam. Communist government in Cuba is proving to be a thorn in the side of the American hemisphere. The struggle for civil rights marches across the landscape. And the president of the United States calls an old friend, to express outrage and concern.


SIMON: Almost 50 years later, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation's releasing a new trove of secret recordings made inside the Kennedy White House. A new book, which includes over 260 hours of transcribed conversations from inside the White House - along with two and a half hours of audio recordings - has been published this week.

"Listening in: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy"- they are selected, and set in context, by Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library. And the book includes an introduction by Caroline Kennedy, who joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: I daresay, a lot of people think Richard Nixon brought recording technology into the White House. We've learned, over the years, it dates back to - I think, at least Franklin Roosevelt. But how, and why, was President Kennedy recording conversations?

C. KENNEDY: Well, we're not really 100 percent sure why he installed the recording. The best guesses are one, that he - himself - was such a lover of history, and he really wanted to have an accurate record that he could draw upon later, for his own memoir. And I think the second is also, after the Bay of Pigs, he knew who had said what, and they changed their tune afterwards. And he wanted to really be able to go back and keep people honest; make sure that he had an accurate record of what was said, when he was facing these difficult crises.

SIMON: Well, that brings up the clip of audio we wanted to listen to next. October 16, 1962, before the rest of the world knew about the Soviet attempt to put defensive missiles in Cuba. There's photographic advisers meeting with President Kennedy, and let's hear how this audio begins.


SIMON: I guess that's you.

C. KENNEDY: I guess that is.


SIMON: How does that feel to hear - maybe less your voice than your father's - the warmth in his voice?

C. KENNEDY: It's wonderful for me to have these recordings because they give me a sense of him at work. And I think all kids wonder what their parents do all day long, and this is really a wonderful way of listening into that. I mean, obviously, I have other memories, but I do remember going over to the office. And he always seemed really glad to see us. And I think that really comes through.

SIMON: To a degree that I hadn't appreciated, these recordings suggest that President Kennedy kept in touch with his predecessors - President Eisenhower, Truman.


SIMON: Was it simple courtesy, or something else?

C. KENNEDY: Well, I think you can hear that there's more to it. I mean, I think the conversations with President Eisenhower about the Cuban missile crisis, are illuminating. And certainly, as a military hero - icon, leader - he had a lot of wisdom to share with my father about the behavior of the Russians, and his insight into that. So I think it was courtesy, but I think it was also very valuable.


SIMON: Another conversation - of which the audio isn't included, but I made some notes about it - March 4, 1963. President Kennedy and the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy - your uncle, of course. It's not high-minded, but these are two sharp-eyed, professional pols - kind of kvetching. What do you hear in their relationship, in that?

C. KENNEDY: Well, I think they had a conversation with no beginning and no end. I think they really were just so incredibly close. They were close, professionally. They were looking out for each other. My Uncle Bobby, obviously, was my father's campaign manager; closest adviser not only on civil rights, which was certainly the most important domestic issue that he faced, but on Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis, also. So I think that what you really hear are people who loved each other, worked together, made each other laugh, and really trusted each other.

SIMON: Some audio to hear that - I'm not even going to characterize it - private dictation, President Kennedy on November 4, 1963. He's recollecting the fact that he feels that he allowed a coup in South Vietnam to take place, to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of South Vietnam and his brother Nhu. They died in that coup. And listen to President Kennedy.


SIMON: What do you make of that? What do you hear in President Kennedy's voice?

C. KENNEDY: Well, I hear regret, remorse, uncertainty, dissatisfaction with his own performance. And I think that really led to a real re-evaluation of Vietnam, in his mind.

SIMON: May I ask, do you ever listen to this audio, just to hear it?

C. KENNEDY: No, I haven't really done that. I mean, I've heard a lot of it, over the years. And so I, obviously, am interested in it. I was really interested in what my children thought.

SIMON: May I ask what your children thought?

C. KENNEDY: Oh, they think it's great. They really found this book to be engaging - and so interesting because I think it really gives a sense of who he was informally, formally, at work, kidding around. And so I think that they really felt that this helped connect them to their grandfather.

SIMON: Caroline Kennedy - she's written the introduction to a new book, which includes audio recordings, "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy." Ms. Kennedy, thanks so much.

C. KENNEDY: Thank you.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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