It was during this critical 1958 campaign that Jack discovered perhaps his best-kept secret political weapon in Jackie Kennedy. Kenny O’Donnell had seen little of Jackie since Helen’s party for her at the Parker House in Boston and the wedding in Newport. When Helen would ask him about some article or puff piece on Jack and Jackie or the birth of their daughter, Kenny would glaze over or run for the door.
Kenny liked Jackie well enough. She seemed fine as far he knew. She just didn’t talk politics, and so Kenny had no need to spend a lot time chatting with her on the rare occasions when their paths crossed. He would not have known what to talk to her about anyway. Kenny was comfortable with someone like his wife Helen: charming and attractive but also able to talk Harvard football and poll results in Ward 6 in Boston, and able to throw a hell of a good pass just in time to beat Bobby and Ethel during a game of pick-up at Hyannis Port.
Jackie, as Kenny was about to find out, was an entirely different creature. Like Kenny, she did not give a damn what other people thought of her or her actions. She did what she wanted, a trait that both Jack and Kenny would alternately admire and, especially during the White House years, find maddening.
“The president,” Kenny said, “would ask Jackie to do such and such, which she did not want to do. She’d ‘yes’ him to death, then do exactly what she wanted. It drove him crazy at times, but Jackie was always her own person. Always.”
What Kenny had heard about Jackie was not necessarily encouraging. He knew secondhand from staffers in Jack’s office and some political wives that she was “a difficult girl and sort of a snob,” that she, in fact, did not like politics and did not even like Jack Kennedy being in politics. Kenny remembered hearing all this in the background, but he couldn’t have cared less. It had nothing to do with him or his role in Jack’s political career.
This was all in Kenny’s mind early one morning when Jack told him over one of Dave’s wonderfully cooked breakfasts at the 122 Bowdoin Street apartment, with some mischievous delight, waiting to see Kenny’s reaction, “Jackie wants to campaign with us. She is going to join us on the swing through Haverhill. This will be her first, and I want you to show her the ropes.”
Kenny was horrified. “She’s a woman,” was all he could think to say.
Jack stared at him, no doubt enjoying Kenny’s discomfort, and said, “Nothing gets past you.”
Jack was clear: the next day Jackie would be joining them. Kenny knew when he’d lost the argument. That night he went home and promptly called Helen at their new house in Bethesda, just outside of Washington, to complain. He didn’t know what to do with a woman, he said to her. Helen, surveying her home, which was by then filled to the brim with four children, quipped that he seemed to have figured it out fairly well in the past. Kenny was not amused.
“I’ve been told,” he complained to Helen, “she’s difficult.”
“By whom?” Helen demanded.
Kenny said that Joe Kennedy had called him that very afternoon and said she was “a difficult, fragile china doll who might not be excited about shaking hands with Vernon Clearly of Taunton.” Helen laughed. “This is the same Joe Kennedy whom you ignore 90 percent of the time, but this time he’s got to be right.” Kenny felt that Helen simply was not appreciating his plight, so he forged on.
If that was not bad enough, Bobby called Kenny to ask him to please “try to have some manners. I mean you really should try to have some manners and be nice; she’s very fragile. You don’t want to frighten her. She’s never dealt with anybody like you,” Bobby said worriedly.
“I’ve never dealt with a woman like that,” Kenny protested to Helen. “What does that mean, ‘Have some manners and don’t frighten her’?”
Helen laughed. “Maybe your brother Cleo will pinch-hit for you,” she replied, completely unsympathetic and obviously enjoying his discomfort.
Kenny was horrified. He had no idea how he was going to handle such a situation. Hardball politics with the Dever people he could deal with; toughing it out in Chicago with Kefauver’s fellows, that was okay; tossing a guy through a window or over a bar, that was fine. But how the hell do you talk to a china doll?
Before they hit the trail the following day, just as they climbed into the car outside the Kennedy apartment on Bowdoin Street, Jack pulled Kenny aside, whispering so that Jackie would not overhear them. “Jackie doesn’t like campaigning, and she doesn’t like politics or politicians. You have to be careful with her. She is a rather delicate flower.”
Kenny couldn’t take this anymore. “A delicate flower?! Jesus!” was all he could think of. “Does she know what you do for a living?” Kenny asked, half to himself.
Jack shot him a dirty look. As they climbed into the car, Kenny thought to himself, The McClellan Committee doesn’t look so bad just now. Maybe he should have stayed in Washington with Bobby!
Later, after Jackie and Kenny became close and formed a deep and trusting friendship that lasted for years after Jack’s death, they would laugh about this first substantial meeting.
“Massachusetts politics constitute a rather rough variety of politics,” Kenny recalled. “I felt when Jack told me this about her that in fact this was not going to go very well. We had a day trip scheduled, and particularly during a trip like this, you never know what you are going to run into. So I was very concerned about how to handle Jackie. I wanted her to be happy and content. I wanted it to be a good day. My main concern was I did not want her to fall apart, start crying, and cause any trouble for the candidate. I would not have known what to do with a sobbing, hysterical woman.”
“I was astonished when I met her,” Kenny laughed later. “Larry and I were prepared for a very high-strung, fragile, demanding china doll who couldn’t cope with anything. This is what the buildup had been. We did not know what the hell to expect. Well, I recall the day vividly because she was the most pleasant, sweet, beautiful, elegant child, and very funny. I found her to be that way from that point forward. She was and is simply a delight as a person. She never raised her voice. She never once complained. She was not enthusiastic, but she never complained. In truth, most politicians’ wives are not excited about this aspect of their lives, either, but most are phony and put on a big show. She never did that. She did exactly what you asked of her, but she was never a faker about it. She was not terribly interested in meeting the local politicians, whose big excitement was describing their local shoe factory. It wasn’t that unusual to not want to listen to some of those fellows. Half the time, I didn’t want to listen to them, either. I admired the fact that she wasn’t a phony. I noticed that the locals also seemed to admire the fact that she was not a faker. She was beautiful. Beautiful in a sense that these fellows were not accustomed to seeing. Jackie was very elegant and classy. Unusual, not your regular politician’s wife, but then Jack Kennedy was no average politician. She would travel with Jack, and he would introduce her. She would say a few words and knock everyone dead. All she had to do was say hello, and these average fellows were captivated. It really was a foreshadowing of the future. This was before she had become completely transformed, but you could see that it was coming.”
“Over drinks a few days later, I asked the senator, ‘Have you actually met Mrs. Kennedy?’ He looked at me astonished and asked what I meant. I told him of our experiences, and I said, ‘Senator, she is anything but fragile; she’s smart as hell, capable, funny, and has a keen political instinct that in certain situations was better than ours. But fragile flower? No.’” Jack nodded, but Kenny sensed that he was surprised. Jack was beginning to understand that if he could persuade her, Jackie could be a useful asset on the campaign trail.
There is one trip in particular that Kenny recalled as marking the beginning of their relationship, or the start of Madame La Femme, as Kenny had dubbed Jackie.
This was a standard political trip for the Kennedy operation to Western Massachusetts’s industrial towns. This trip would be different, however, because it marked their first political trip with Jackie. And because it was her debut, Jack in particular was, as Kenny put it, “a wreck.” Kenny and Larry wanted her to be happy, mostly because they wanted her husband to be happy.
“We were all very hungry,” Kenny recalled, “so we stopped finally for lunch. One of the things that we did during the campaign was we always took two hours for lunch. We did this throughout Jack’s career. This was one of the things that we always paid great attention to and made sure to take a full two hours. It was very important for Jack’s health.
“We really held our Kennedy secretaries throughout the state to this routine. It would also later be an important part of our national schedule. We did it in the 1960 campaign, and we were very tough with everyone about it. Joe Kennedy was the one who first spoke to me about it. He asked
me directly for this one concession and said for his son’s health it is important that he eat properly. It was one of the only concessions I made to Mr. Kennedy. I will say I did so with great pleasure, though, because I felt he was quite right.”
Kenny still was not fully versed in Jack’s health issues, but the recent health scare in 1955 had given him enough information to know the well was far deeper than it appeared.
Kenny could see that Jackie was laughing generally at the entire operation. She was not quite able to figure out what all these maneuvers were about. She didn’t know any of the players or understand the purpose of it all. It was evident that she thought it was all a bit silly.
“We were in the back room in a restaurant. John Lenihan was there. He was our secretary in Haverhill. We were all seated around this table, having our lunch: steak, baked potato, glass of milk, and chocolate cake for dessert. That was really our standard lunch, always prearranged in advance, so we could just sit down and order it. Jackie was terribly amused that we all ate the same thing every day. But it was what the senator wanted, and so that was that.
“Senator Kennedy was giving me his usual twenty-five instructions: ‘I want you call so-and-so. Then call that SOB down there and tell him to do such-and-such. Call this fellow over there and tell him to do this.’ I had my pencil and my usual notebook, which was really the back of an envelope. I wrote down every single thing he said and made a list.
“Jackie was eating, sipping her drink, and watching me intensely. We got all through the list, and Jackie said, ‘I have always wondered what exactly is it you do with all those things Jack tells you. You keep writing them all down, but I have never actually seen you do anything with any of the items on the list.’
“Senator Kennedy had decided, since Jackie was with us, to relax a bit, and so he had ordered everyone at the table a glass of wine with lunch. I thought it was quite funny that she should notice this, and I said to her, ‘Well, you know what I do with them? I wait until he calms down, and then
I only do what I think is important, and I throw the envelope out.’ Jackie burst out laughing.
“‘I knew that!’ she declared. ‘I just guessed.’
“Jack was less than amused. While he likely understood my routine better than most, he was as nervous as a schoolboy and obviously was trying to impress his wife.
“He was furious. ‘You son of bitch,’ he barked, ‘I bet that is just what you do!’” Kenny tried not to laugh, suddenly realizing for some odd reason that Jack was really trying to impress Jackie.
“Oh, Jack,” Jackie said, putting her hand on his arm to calm him down. “He’s just teasing you. Relax. It’s all supposed to be good fun.”
Kenny watched as Jack immediately returned to his good-natured, teasing self and laughed.
“You SOB,” he said again to Kenny as they rose to leave. “I have no doubt that you do exactly what you want, no matter what I say.”
Kenny laughed, lagging behind as they left the restaurant to return to their cars. He caught Jackie watching him and pretended to throw the envelope away. He laughed instead, stuffing it in his suit coat pocket. It was the first time Kenny had been exposed to Jackie’s charming side, and Kenny was utterly captivated.
Kenny told Sandy Vanocur later, “She had not yet made the full transformation into this enormously popular national figure, but you could see the potential was there. For the first time, I also saw just how important she was to the senator. Her good humor and wonderful perspective kept him level-headed, and in politics that is critical for a candidate.”
It was clear to the Irish Brotherhood that Jackie was a political asset. Kenny took note of it for the future, though this was not something he needed to write down on an envelope.
The campaign that Kenny and Larry O’Brien designed was, as Kenny described it, “as nearly perfect in planning and operation as an election campaign in an off year could be.”
Copyright © 2015 by Helen O'Donnell from The Irish Brotherhood. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.