Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy played a historic role during the Kennedy administration—in restoring the White House, supporting the arts, promoting historic preservation, and serving as a traveling ambassador.
In January 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, launching 11 months of cross-country campaigning. A few weeks into the campaign, Jacqueline Kennedy became pregnant with their second child, and her doctors instructed her to remain at home. There she answered campaign mail, taped TV commercials, gave interviews and wrote "Campaign Wife," a syndicated column carried across the nation.
Celebration of a Kennedy election victory was followed just weeks later by celebration of the birth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. At age 31, Jacqueline Kennedy became the third youngest first lady in U.S. history and the first to be the mother of an infant since the turn of the century. She defined her major role as "to take care of the President," but added, "if you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
In the White House
Jacqueline Kennedy had first visited the White House as a tourist with her mother and sister in 1941. She was dismayed to see so few historical furnishings on display and frustrated by the lack of a booklet to inform visitors about the history of the great house. Twenty years later, as first lady, she sought to change things and make the White House "the most perfect house in the United States."
Before her husband's inauguration, Mrs. Kennedy visited the White House as the guest of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Disappointed with its appearance, Mrs. Kennedy referred to the White House as "that dreary Maison Blanche." Calling it an "18th-century house," she believed that it should be furnished with antiques in the style of past presidents. It was, she thought, a museum that should reflect the artistic history of the United States.
Restoration, Not Decoration
"All these people come to see the White House and they see practically nothing that dates back before 1948," Mrs. Kennedy said in a September 1, 1961 interview with Hugh Sidey of Life magazine. "Every boy who comes here should see things that develop his sense of history. For the girls, the house should look beautiful and lived-in. They should see what a fire in the fireplace and pretty flowers can do for a house; the White House rooms should give them a sense of all that. Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be sacrilege merely to "redecorate" it -- a word I hate. It must be restored -- and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship."
Mrs. Kennedy's passion for history guided and informed her work in the White House. She wanted to share her knowledge and excitement about the past with all Americans, especially children. She understood that to a child, American history can often be a dry and dull affair, and she saw a visit to the President's House as a chance to spark each child's interest in the people who made the country what it is today.