UNCG Campus Weekly

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The overlooked diplomatic skills of Jacqueline Kennedy

Photo of Jackie Kennedy speaking to other people Every First Lady has to figure out the role as First Lady. “There is no job description,” says Dr. Jody Natalle, associate professor of communication studies.

Natalle is keenly interested in First Ladies, particularly the manner and impact of their communication skills.

Her new book is “Jacqueline Kennedy and the Architecture of First Lady Diplomacy,” published by Peter Lang.” It’s a project she has worked on for twenty years.

People have their conception of her as First Lady – for example, they may recall Ms. Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House, Natalle explains. She has not been given enough credit as an excellent communicator and diplomat.

She notes Ms. Kennedy’s breathless, quiet way of speaking as First Lady. She deliberately played into stereotypes. It was a “feminine ruse, her communication style.”

That “meek” speaking style was strategic, Natalle says. It forced the listener, in one-on-one conversations, to lean in and engage with her very personally. She analyzed the person.

“She and her husband would have discussions afterward,” Natalle says. He’d learn a lot from her about the person, their motivations and trustworthiness.

“This thing they called Camelot? She was quite mistaken in (later) calling it that,” Natalle says. “The US was under threat of nuclear annihilation.” Ms. Kennedy was highly aware of that, Natalle notes, even as the Kennedy years were romanticized after the fact.

“She was kind of a nerd. Her intellect was her biggest gift.” She spoke five languages, matched among First Ladies only by Melania Trump, who also speaks five languages.

Her “soft-diplomacy” work was an important part of US diplomacy during that trying time, the height of the Cold War, Natalle notes. Whether through daily letter-writing, her building bridges with other nations through her fashion, her forging ties with the French government by helping bring the Mona Lisa to the United States for a blockbuster exhibition, helping see the Temple of Dendur preserved at the Met Museum when the Aswan Dam was built (and in the US helping ensure there’d be adequate funding for the Egyptian dam project), she accomplished a lot.

Natalle reflects on her own personal memories of the Kennedy years. Her maternal grandmother worked on the Kennedy campaign in 1960. In 1963, she recalls watching the coverage of the Kennedy assassination, tributes and funeral. “We sat in front of that TV and watched it unfold.”

Before this book, Natalle’s most recent book, co-edited with Jenni M. Simon in 2015, had been “Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor.”

As the first African American First Lady, Ms. Obama “changed the criteria” – she changed how America views a first lady, Natalle says. “She navigated, graciously, the racism (in society) in addition to the politics. … She was wonderful.”

Her scholarly opinion of Melania Trump as First Lady? “She has not been as visible” as other modern-day First Ladies so far, she says.

A 2017-18 Global Engagement Faculty Fellow at UNCG, Natalle had been a Sorensen Scholar at the Kennedy Library in 2007, allowing her to conduct a good deal of research.

Natalle notes that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is the only First Lady in the modern era to not write a memoir. In fact, she only gave one interview to a scholar. Books such as hers are very important to understand the importance of her role in history.

First Ladies as an area of scholarship has been largely overlooked, she says. “We need to look at the important role they play. This scholarship needs to be developed.”

In fact, Natalle is part of a steering committee of scholars and government professionals who are organizing a national First Ladies association with the intent to bring interdisciplinary research to both academia and the public.

Natalle will give a lecture based on her new book Thursday, Oct. 25, at 4:30 p.m. in the Alumni House, Virginia Dare Room. It is free and open to the public.

By Mike Harris
Photograph, public domain. 28 June 28, 1962, opening of the refurbished Treaty Room, White House. Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. Courtesy, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.