The White House is fully open for tours. Why Jacqueline Kennedy deserves some credit.

Stewart D. McLaurin
Opinion contributor
  • First lady Jacqueline Kennedy made restoring the White House a priority.
  • She hired the first curator, whose team now manages a large and crowing collection of decorative and fine arts pieces.
  • She spearheaded efforts to make the White House a museum.
  • She also created the nonprofit, nonpartisan White House Historical Association.

July marks the resumption of a full schedule of White House tours, for the first time since before COVID-19. This is fitting because Thursday marks the birthday of Jacqueline Kennedy – whose legacy as a first lady made the White House more accessible, more beautiful and a stronger force for educating Americans about their history. As she put it, “The White House belongs to the American people.”

Just 31 years old when her husband was elected president, Mrs. Kennedy made the restoration of the White House a priority. She renovated many of its rooms, gathered historic pieces from past administrations, and transformed the White House into a world-class collection of American decorative arts and paintings.

The new first lady created the Fine Arts Committee for the White House, made up of specialists in the field, and she hired the first curator, whose team now manages a growing collection of more than 60,000 decorative and fine arts pieces. She also spearheaded efforts to make the White House a museum.

Showcasing the best of America

Restoring the White House supported President Kennedy’s vision of U.S. leadership during an important moment in the Cold War. He and the first lady wanted to ensure that the White House would convey the best impression of America when world leaders came to meet with the president.

President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy attending the White House staff Christmas reception in 1962.

Mrs. Kennedy’s legacy also extends far beyond the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – because she wanted Americans to see White House history as American history. As their daughter, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, put it, “For both my parents, history was not a dry academic affair but a conversation with the most interesting people you could ever hope to meet – a conversation that could help us solve the problems of our own time.”

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A sold-out guidebook and Emmy-winning TV tour

When a young Jacqueline Bouvier had visited the White House with her mother, there had been no guide to learn about the place, the kind you find in other great American museums. As first lady, Mrs. Kennedy – and the White House Historical Association she created – worked in partnership with the National Geographic Society to create a guidebook that was educational and dignified. It would be sold at a dollar a copy, and help pay for the White House restoration that she led.

The guidebook was an instant success, selling out its first run of 250,000 copies in just 90 days. A second edition was also snapped up; the orders came so fast that a vault had to be rented to store the unopened mail.

The Blue Room in 1963, after its restoration under the guidance of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

To share the White House with the public as never before, Mrs. Kennedy led the first televised tour of the White House, broadcast by CBS and NBC on Valentine's Day in 1962. More than 80 million viewers around the world watched, and Mrs. Kennedy earned a special Emmy award for the program.

Ensuring the legacy of the White House

Because she wanted to ensure that this legacy of restoration and revitalization would endure, Mrs. Kennedy created the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. The association, which I direct, provides the resources to maintain the museum standard of the White House, so that Americans can see beautiful state rooms where everything was acquired by or maintained by the generosity of the American people.

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Mrs. Kennedy also envisioned the association as an educational force in American life, with a mission to teach and tell the stories of the White House and its history. The association produces historical research and scholarship, creates educational resources for America’s teachers, and offers public access to a digital library with thousands of exclusive images of life at the White House, famous events and visitors, presidents and their families, and historic rooms and furnishings.

White House honors Jacqueline Kennedy's birthday

To honor Mrs. Kennedy’s birthday, the 60th anniversary White House guidebook is being published Thursday with new behind-the-scenes photos of lesser-known White House spaces like the kitchen, the floral shop, the bowling alley and even the calligraphy office that produces proclamations, military commissions and official greetings.

The Kennedys in the recently completed Yellow Oval Room in 1963.

The guidebook Mrs. Kennedy founded doesn’t just show how the White House is a home for the president and his family, and an office to the president and his staff. It also reminds us that the White House is also a ceremonial stage where our country receives its most important guests, and a museum that hosts up to a half a million visitors a year.

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“My mother wanted to bring that spirit to life in the White House,” says Caroline Kennedy, “so that the legacy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln would be visible to the students and families who visited here.”

Jacqueline Kennedy’s legacy was a gift to the White House and to all Americans. She knew that an accessible White House is critical to our life as a democracy – and our influence as a nation.

Stewart D. McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to privately fund maintaining the museum standard of the White House and to provide publications and programs on White House history. The 60th anniversary White House guidebook can be ordered here.