05/16/2014 06:04 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

Why Jackie O Still Matters


Monday, May 19, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

She was only 62 when she died, and as her brother-in-law, the late Ted Kennedy, said so movingly in his funeral eulogy, "Jackie was too young to be a widow in 1963, and too young to die now." Yet despite the passage of two decades and a dramatically changed world, the examples Jackie set in her lifetime are still important, still relevant, today.

That relevance was explored in depth during a panel discussion held at Hunter College's Roosevelt House to mark the publication of a commemorative edition of Tina Santi Flaherty's excellent book, What Jackie Taught Us.

Roosevelt House -- which was Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's New York home from 1908 until they moved into the White House and is now a think tank dedicated to many of the issues FDR and Eleanor cared about deeply -- was the ideal venue for the discussion, since the ties between the Roosevelts and Kennedys ran long and deep.

The relationship began during World War I when FDR was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in charge of getting warships built quickly and Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, helped end a labor stoppage at key shipyard.

The bond extended into the next generation, since John Kennedy was a great admirer of FDR. As a young Harvard graduate, he sent Roosevelt an inscribed copy of his new book Why England Slept, which Roosevelt added to his personal library. Years later, Kennedy called FDR "a man of determination and steel in an hour of crisis," and dubbed his own administration the New Frontier as both a reminder of, and a tribute to, Roosevelt's New Deal.

As First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy had an impact on the American public that can be compared only with that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was distinctly unglamorous while Jackie was the picture of beauty and elegance, yet despite the seeming differences between them, these two taught us more than all the others what a profound influence the First Lady can exert on the nation.

Both grew up in that repressive world in which young women were told to limit their educations and submerge their intellects. Both chose to ignore the advice. In Jackie's case, this meant pursuing a lifetime of learning. The first fact explains why the public Jackie often seemed so modest, even shy at times. The second why she was from childhood on a voracious reader, why she was fascinated by history and why she emerged as a leading advocate for American culture.

Her lifelong hunger for learning was underscored by her son John Jr.'s statement announcing her passing. "My mother died," he said, "surrounded by her friends and her family and her books." The inclusion of books among the things she loved and wanted near her at the end provides a true insight into who she truly was and what makes her so uniquely important.

That importance was manifested in her many contributions, from restoring the elegance of a previously rundown White House, to helping preserve America's cultural heritage -- especially the rescue of Grand Central Terminal and Lafayette Square in Washington -- to her ceaseless support for the arts, to her superb work as a book editor.

Like so many other women of my generation, I felt her influence in very personal ways. Growing up at a time when the place of women in American society was undergoing sweeping changes and doors were opening for us into an uncertain future, we could look to her as a role model. She was strong. She was independent. And she proved it was possible to be all the things so many of us dreamed of -- glamorous, famous and serious all at the same time.

I shared along with my fellow New Yorkers the pleasure of knowing she had become one of us, and we all applauded her leading role in the battle to preserve Grand Central. That victory would have a direct impact on my life because it led to a Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of the city's Landmarks Commission to protect this architectural treasure, thus enshrining the principle of historic preservation. Years later, I was appointed to lead the Landmarks Commission, and one of the projects we were proud to work on was the restoration of Grand Central's magnificent interior.

Sitting in Roosevelt House listening to the discussion of Jackie O and sifting through the memories and emotions, I realized why it was so important: Without her, our lives would be poorer -- and our nation a less inspiring place.

Jennifer J. Raab is the President of Hunter College, the largest campus of the City University of New York.