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Exploring the Kennedy White House through the eyes of the ‘First Children’

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: On this Presidents' Day, we take a different look at the White House during the Kennedy years.

A new exhibition, First Children, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, shows how the young residents navigated their new home and how mother and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy tried to protect them from a press and public anxious to see them.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston takes us there for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

John F. Kennedy, Former President: I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination.

Jared Bowen: In the early 1960s, when global tensions were boiling over and the president found himself on the precipice of nuclear war, there was always hope in the White House emanating directly from its youngest and most cherubic residents.

Alan Price, Director, JFK Library and Museum: To see the children, it's humanizing of the presidency and the administration. I think it reassures people that we are all human beings, that our children matter in the end.

Jared Bowen: That, according to JFK library and museum director Alan Price, is one of myriad reasons the Kennedy White House captivated the American public.

What's been most striking to you seeing this collection of images of the children?

Alan Price: Well, it's just so exciting to bring out a piece of our collection that we don't ordinarily get to bring out.

Jared Bowen: In its newest exhibition, the library and museum has focused on the first children. Caroline Kennedy was three when her father took office, and John Jr. was all of two months, a perfect complement to their parents' own youthful allure.

Alan Price: America was obsessed with them. You have got to remember, long before Instagram and TikTok, there were magazines, and America loved to have magazines in their home. And these children were on the covers.

Jared Bowen: Because, says curator Janice Hodson, a sizable portion of the American public suddenly had a White House to which they could connect.

Janice Hodson, Curator, JFK Library and Museum: Forty percent of the eligible voters were people under 40. These people were World War II veterans, as was President Kennedy. They had young families, so they closely identified with the Kennedy family.

Jared Bowen: They flooded the White House with gifts, rocking chairs from a shop in North Carolina, sparkling piggy banks from California makers, dolls from world leaders.

Janice Hodson: These gifts kind of got out of control. I mean, there was a -- the White House requested a ban on sending pets, because a lot of people sent pets, sometimes through the mail.

(LAUGHTER)

Jared Bowen: Then came the commercialization of the children, paper dolls and comic books, and something that earned the indignation of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, comic Vaughn Meader's Grammy-winning parody of the family.

Woman: I should like to ask a question about...

Man: Would you identify yourself, please?

Woman: I'm your wife.

(LAUGHTER)

Janice Hodson: It's very mild by today's standards, but, for the time, it was considered going a step too far.

Jared Bowen: The public's appetite for all things Kennedy grew so voracious, Jackie Kennedy began to shut it down, heeding Eleanor Roosevelt's personal warning that life inside the -- quote, unquote -- "fish bowl" could be difficult. So Kennedy allowed the release only of basic information, like the children's heights, but not much more.

Janice Hodson: At one point, she says to Pierre Salinger, the president's press secretary, no more information. If the media asks, what do they want for their birthdays, what do they want for Christmas?, tell them Mrs. Kennedy does not want to give out that information.

Jared Bowen: She defied even more public sentiment when she assembled a school within the White House for Caroline and the children of staff members.

As the battle for civil rights and desegregation raged across the country, Jackie Kennedy settled the matter, at least on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Janice Hodson: The White House school did integrate. And that child was Avery Hatcher, who was the son of Andrew Hatcher, assistant press secretary, who was the highest-ranking African-American in the Kennedy Cabinet.

A lot of the children draw President Kennedy as they kind of knew him, as a family friend. So it's President Kennedy walking to the pool for a swim. Or Avery Hatcher shows a press conference, and his father is like a stick figure next to the lectern.

Jared Bowen: As challenging as life in the White House could be, it also provided routine and togetherness, a place where the president could always finger-paint with his son, and have breakfast with his daughter.

Janice Hodson: Jacqueline Kennedy did state, after the assassination, that this was a point in their lives when she felt they were very close, because they were all together in the same place as a family. And she kind of reflected on these as being some of their best years.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

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