Diane Sawyer has known a lot about one of America's most prominent families, but she admits she's learning more now.
As will others, and very soon. Given the personal friendships she's had with Kennedys over the years, the weeknight "ABC World News" anchor will be a highly intrigued host as her new ABC special "Jacqueline Kennedy, in Her Own Words" airs Tuesday, Sept. 13.
The two-hour program offers portions of tapes of seven interviews the former first lady gave journalist Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. early in 1964, under the condition they not be made public until after her death. Also to be highlighted on such other ABC News platforms as "Good Morning America" and "Nightline," the tapes are being presented in conjunction with the Wednesday, Sept. 14, publication of the book "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy."
Then recently widowed, Mrs. Kennedy spent more than eight hours reflecting on such events of her Democrat husband's presidency as the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as her times with him out of public view. Caroline Kennedy, who has written a foreword to the book and calls her role in the release of her mother's tapes "a great privilege" in a statement, is interviewed by Sawyer during the special.
In a recent conversation with this writer, one-time Republican political aide Sawyer discussed her impressions of the recordings and the impact of being among the first to hear them.
Q: When did you first become aware of the existence of the Jacqueline Kennedy tapes?
A: Oh, months ago. I can't remember who it was who said they first existed, but as everybody did, I gasped. I had no idea. Maybe there had been some mentions that she had taken part in the Oral History Program (of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum), but if there were, I missed them ... and I never absorbed the fact that it meant she sat down and gave tape-recorded interviews.
I said to someone that it really felt as if we were suspending the laws of the universe and she had suddenly traveled through time and space and decided to speak for herself.
Q: What was it like for you when you actually first heard her voice on the tapes?
A: It was stunning. We'd heard her voice on television, but this was the experience of sitting in a quiet corner of a room and eavesdropping, and being able to transport yourself into those dramatic events in history.
You could be the Zelig who got to hear what was really going on, what was really being said in those pictures we've looked at a thousand times. And suddenly, to know the true thoughts of the person in the picture.
Q: How was your own contact with Mrs. Kennedy?
A: I didn't meet her until I came to New York, and I think that so much of who she was is present on these tapes -- funny, irreverent, incredibly intuitive and wildly intelligent. She read everything, and she had been a real student of history.
She read about French history, Russian history and all the ways power and personality intersected over the years. And you can see how all of that comes to bear when she arrives at the White House.
Q: As with your securing your recent interview with kidnap-and-imprisonment survivor Jaycee Dugard, did you find a lot of competition to acquire these tapes?
A: I was not a direct part of that, and there certainly were people here involved in discussions of the book and the tapes and what we would do. I will, of course, say on the air that I have known the family.
Q: What are your thoughts on your interview with Caroline Kennedy for the special?
A: I hope the fact that I did know her mother -- though I don't claim at all ever to have been a close friend -- made it able for me to say, "Yes, that's what I saw. That's what I heard, too." Caroline has always said that her parents saw history not as a recitation of dates but as the most fascinating people operating on the world stage speaking to you and changing life for all of us. That's what you feel here.
Q: How do you stack your own experiences as a woman in Washington, D.C., against Mrs. Kennedy's?
A: It was the beginning of something that none of us quite grasped or fathomed. The real crossroads of change for women was in the early '70s, when the feminist issue suddenly was in the streets.
The '60s were about something else to me ... a rumble under the earth, when something profound was happening. As President Kennedy said, "The torch has been passed to a new generation," and no one knew where that light was going to fall. No one knew what the path was.
Q: What do you think now of Jacqueline Kennedy's place as an up-close witness to history?
A: There's an arc that we were all traveling, and you don't see the pattern until time has passed and you can look back. You see that she was very much a part of the emerging evolution of American women and American family life.Of course, when they first arrived (in Washington), it was the end of the Eisenhower era. Those of us who were around then -- such as I, who vaguely remembers Noah and the flood! -- remember the black-and-white, Ozzie-and-Harriet world of that time. It really seemed as if we were on the horizon, and we didn't know what lay beyond it.
Q: What do you hope the ultimate takeaway from your Kennedy special will be for viewers?
A: I believe that in this 50th anniversary of the inauguration, it's a wonderful way to stop together and remember who we were. And to remember our dreams. And to take a look at ourselves through the mirror of what this woman says, and teaches, through the arc of her life.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun