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Posted at 11:00 PM ET, 01/20/2011

Kennedy White House staffers remember the good times at a 50th anniversary luncheon

By The Reliable Source

Chief Justice Earl Warren administers oath of office to President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1961. (AP/File)

On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Letitia Baldrige cast her mind back not to the soaring speeches and glamorous balls -- but rather to "how hard it was to move everything in!"

It seems that the legendary social secretary spent much of Jan. 20, 1961, working like a pack mule. "We were trying to get as much of Jackie Kennedy's things into the White House before the inauguration" -- without, of course, being gauche enough to do so under the gaze of Mamie Eisenhower -- "and when you're carrying a long ball gown over your arm, everyone knows what that is, and they're trying to get a look."

Former social secretary Letitia Baldrige, at head of table, with a gathering of Kennedy White House staff -- and yes, a miniature bust of JFK at front. (Amy Argetsinger/TWP)

Amid august ceremonies at the Kennedy Center and the Capitol, a different kind of remembrance occurred at Charlie Palmer Steak. In view of the historic swearing-in site, several JFK staffers got together over lunch to talk about what it was like to be there then. Baldrige was the highest-ranking; most had been secretaries or assistants, youngsters in jobs they had bumbled into because they knew someone, because they were from Boston, or "because," said Sue Vogelsinger, an aide to press secretary Pierre Salinger, "I could type."

Stories were shared of memorable brushes with greatness that they enjoyed from their low rung. "Have you talked to Gloria Sitrin?" asked lunch organizer Nancy Dutton, pointing us in the direction of Ted Sorensen's former secretary. "She typed the inaugural speech! Ask not why she's here!"

Stories, anyone? Mary White remembers running into Marlene Dietrich -- "in a white suit and high white heels" -- before the president whisked the visiting movie star into the Oval Office. Then there was the time JFK beckoned White to say hello to a visiting head of state: "I want to introduce you to a real bachelor."

Oh, who was that?

"I better not say," White demurred.

Oh, come on.

"He had a uniform with a lot of medals." She'd go no further.

John Cochran, later a globe-trotting correspondent for NBC and ABC, was an Army Signal Corps guy, arranging communications for the White House -- where he found himself advising the president on whether a speech sounded okay. "It was as if Kennedy had decided if you were in the Oval Office with him, you must be qualified. I wasn't qualified! I was a kid from Alabama!"

Some described an informal vibe. Mary Ann Orlando, an aide to the late Sarge Shriver, was ready to walk off the job, frustrated by bureaucratic resistance to starting the Peace Corps -- when the president stuck his head out of his office: "Hey, kid, where are you going?" (Shriver quickly talked her into returning.)

Did you kids party much? Not really, said Lenny Donnelly, a vet­eran of the visitors' office. "We were working all the time. But we admired and loved him so much it didn't feel like work. . . We were so lucky, so lucky to be there!"

By The Reliable Source  | January 20, 2011; 11:00 PM ET
Categories:  Parties, Politics  
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As a retired Army Colonel who was drafted into Secretary McNamara’s Army, commissioned out of OCS and had the privilege of serving an extended CIB earning Vietnam tour, I don’t believe President Kennedy is given sufficient credit for his committed bi-partisan, anti-communist foreign policy and his principled defense of South Vietnam by sending in U.S. Forces and actually creating the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) on 8 Feb 1962. As everyone that fought in Vietnam knows, MACV was the US Command that prosecuted the war right up until the end.

President Kennedy was totally committed to stopping communist expansion and knew not acting decisively in Vietnam by committing US troops would fatally damage U.S. credibility with our allies. As Kennedy so eloquently stated "Now we have a problem in making our power credible... and Vietnam looks like the place.” He went on to reaffirmed his commitment to defend South Vietnam in his 11 May National Security Action Memorandum 52, which became known as "The Presidential Program for Vietnam." Its opening statement reads: “U.S. objectives and concept of operations [are] to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic, psychological, and covert character designed to achieve this objective.”

Although initially totally supportive of the Vietnam Catholic minority administration of President Ngô Đình Diệm, the Kennedy administration grew increasingly frustrated with Diệm because his crackdown against protesting Buddhist monks that sparked a Buddhist Revolt where several monks committed self-immolation covered by the world press. Hence, on 1 Nov 1963, with the tacit approval of the Kennedy administration, Vietnamese military officers launch a coup d'état against Diem and on the next day he was assassinated. By the time President Kennedy was himself assassinated he had established the MACV Command in country and had 16,000 troops in country with plans for a significant escalation. Although President Johnson presided over the troop increases, it is clear he was following the Kennedy blueprint so President Kennedy is due the lion’s share of the credit for saving most of Southeast Asia from Communist domination.

As a student of the Vietnam War who strongly believes holding the line there until the mid 1970s (ground troops left in 1972 and Congress withdrew support allowing the South Vietnamese Government to fall in 1975) actually stemmed the tide of Communist aggression in Southeast Asia, I believe the contributions of President are often overlooked.

The fact that President Kennedy established MACV and introduced combat troops into South Vietnam in sizable numbers providing the “breathing room” that kept most of Southeast Asia free should be a proud part of the proud Kennedy legacy and I am proud to have

Posted by: A-COL | January 21, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I was just a kid, but I remember the feeling I had during Camelot. I can't describe what was in the air. The closest I ever came to that was at Obama's Inauguration. Camelot was sort of like being in a dream.

Posted by: arlingtonian6 | January 21, 2011 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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