Jackie Kennedy called Diefenbaker meeting 'painful'

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline were treated like royalty when they visited Canada in 1961 to help form a stronger alliance with their northern neighbour, but newly released audiotapes reveal "painful moments" with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy were treated like royalty when they visited Canada in the spring of 1961 to help form a stronger alliance with their northern neighbour during the Cold War era, but audiotapes released this week reveal "painful" moments with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

The eight hours of recordings created in 1964, when the fashion icon of the times sat down with historian and former White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. just four months after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of the 35th U.S. president,  were released this week as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy's first year in office.

The audio recordings released with the book Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy reveal a Jackie Kennedy that few outside her circle of friends and family knew.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Born Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in Southampton, N.Y., she was married to John F. Kennedy for a decade before his assassination. Five years after the president's death, she married Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who died in 1975, after which she became a book editor at Viking Press and then Doubleday.

She died May 19, 1994, at age 64 after a battle with cancer.

During the Kennedys' two-day visit to Canada, the president addressed Parliament, saying "Nothing is more vital than the unity of the United States and Canada," and encouraging Canada to increase military co-operation in the Cold War era.

"Geography has made us neighbours; history has made us friends," he said as Jackie Kennedy watched from the gallery, smiling and wearing her trademark pillbox hat. 

But during a lunch with Diefenbaker, Jackie Kennedy suggests in the tapes that she was bored to tears listening to him.

"He insisted on telling all these Churchill stories … and calling him old Winston or the old boy or something," she says about Britain's former prime minister. "You know, it was just painful."

Months before John Kennedy's assassination, Diefenbaker's beleaguered minority government foundered over the issue of placing American nuclear warheads in Canada, after the controversy prompted his defence minister to resign and two non-confidence motions toppled the government.

Tapes show her fragile side

On the tapes, the voice of the young widow of two young children moves from soft-spoken, to breathy and at times excitable. She describes her feelings about various world leaders, as well as her triumphs and tribulations. A shy intellectual who describes how difficult it was to conform to the good-political wife figure, Jackie is critical of leaders including a "pushy" and "bitter" Indira Gandhi, who was elected India’s prime minister in 1966, and "egomaniac" French President Charles de Gaulle.

The tapes also evoke images of a fragile Jackie Kennedy, who gave birth to her second child, John Kennedy Jr., brother of Caroline, just two weeks after her dashing husband's presidential win. She says Mamie Eisenhower, wife of outgoing president Dwight D. Eisenhower, invited the Kennedys to tour the While House the day she left hospital after the difficult delivery of her son.

"Like a fool I said I'd go — I wish I hadn't," she says. "They said they'd have a wheelchair and everything and there was never any wheelchair. We were just dragged around every floor and not even asked to sit down."

Kennedy recalls being a bag of nerves on inauguration day on Jan. 20, 1961, when her husband was sworn in after his Nov. 8, 1960, presidential victory over Richard Nixon.

Jacqueline Kennedy accompanied her husband, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, on a state visit to Canada in May 1961, where they met with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and his wife Olive, standing in front of Government House in Ottawa on May 17. ((Canadian Press))

But her love for her husband shines through.

Kennedy's swearing-in speech, during which he famously said, "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country will do for you — ask what you can do for your country," stirred a nation as well as the power couple.

In the tapes, Jackie remembers touching her husband's face, saying, "I mean, that was so much more emotional than any kiss, 'cause his eyes really did fill with tears. I just said, 'Oh, Jack, what a day.'"

But before the gala, Jackie took the stimulant Dexedrine to help her get through the day.

"It was like Cinderella and the clock striking midnight. 'Cause I just couldn't get out of the car."

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy says, she begged him not to send her away. "'If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you," she recalls in the tapes as saying to her husband. "'I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too — than live without you."