The private utterings of public figures are protected by a barbed wire fence in this country. Officialese — such as the Official Secrets Act, mired as it is with notions of national security and utter political loyalty — ensures that the absence in the public space of any off-the-record remarks made no matter how long back in time is passed off as cultural decorum that Indians are supposedly blessed with. So, if Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had complained in Hindi to an Indian official about how boring her meeting with President Richard Nixon was at the White House, we have to learn this fact from American diplomat Dennis Kux’s book Estranged Democracies, and not from any homegrown source. So when our appetites need to be whetted, we depend on other democracies to creak the lid open a bit on past utterings by their public figures. Which is kind of sad.
When Jacqueline Kennedy, then the recently widowed wife of John F Kennedy, met with historian and former White House aide Arthur M Schlesinger Jr in 1964, she chatted away about her husband and their time in the White House. Those recordings and their transcripts become public knowledge today with the release of Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F Kennedy. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy-era administration, many of her comments don’t make the former First Lady shine. But her daughter Caroline thought that people deserved to know more about Jackie Kennedy. Among her private thoughts Schlesinger records include her opinion that Mrs Gandhi being a ‘prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman’. Not to forget her vocal distaste for black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, whom she described as a ‘terrible man’, a ‘phoney’ and a man ‘arranging for... a sort of orgy’.
So will India-US ties get frayed after this revelation? We doubt it. A few years ago we learnt about stronger words (‘the old witch’) being used by President Nixon to describe Prime Minister Gandhi. All we get from such old private remarks being outed is an understanding of how minds work years after they become redundant. And a few chuckles. They also show that public figures, despite the adoration and veneration, are humans. Something that we Indians privately, if not publicly, actually understand fully.