JFK White House staffers gather to remember the golden years

Of all the events commemorating the half-century since the Kennedy assassination, Ted Kennedy Jr. said Saturday night’s reunion of John F. Kennedy’s White House staff was the one not to be missed. “I don’t want to go to Arlington Cemetery,’’ he told hostess Nancy Hogan Dutton. “What I want is to be here in your home.’’

The point of the gathering of about 100 old friends was not the death of the president but his life — and theirs when they worked for him. No matter what they went on to achieve, reaching for the moon was hard to top.

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“No president since has called people to public service,’’ said Charlie Peters, who helped start the Peace Corps in 1961. When Kennedy did, recent college grads from all over the country quit their jobs and came to Washington to pitch in.

His staff and a few of the reporters and later historians who wrote about him did that again over the weekend, flying in from everywhere for what Dutton said would probably be the last such gathering. Two ex-colleagues had been buried in the last few weeks since telling her they’d be there. And given the amount of work that goes into duck à l’orange for 100, even with lots of help, it’s not hard to understand her plans to retire as reunion organizer for the administration that she and her late husband, Fred Dutton, served, he as a special assistant to JFK.

Theirs was a young White House, and most could still wave off the outstretched arms of waiters offering to walk them down the steps from Dutton’s Spring Valley home, where drinks and demitasse cups of JFK chowder were served, to the tent out front where they were seated for dinner.

After Kitty Kelley, whose first celebrity bio was “Jackie Oh!,” about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, gave up on getting former congressman Jim Symington to sing “Danny Boy,’’ she offered — no, insisted — on helping me interview former Vogue writer Marie Ridder, who was wearing the same pink confection of a dress, tattered now, that she’d worn to the May 1962 White House dinner the Kennedys hosted for the French writer Andre Malraux. He was also the minister of culture and, as a gesture of thanks to Jackie, sent the United States the “Mona Lisa” on loan.

“Marie, how did you get started’’ in journalism in the ’40s?, Kelley asked Ridder. “There weren’t that many pretty girls on the Hill back then,’’ Ridder replied, and Kelley howled: “Am I good or what?’’ Though, come to think of it, “there weren’t that many pretty girls on the Hill in the ’60s when I went, either,” Kelley said. Laughing some more, she suggested that I start my story this way: “Oh my God, they’re still alive!”

People were people, even in Camelot, so a couple of memories seem to have been improved upon in the past 50 years, including one about how the Kennedy White House helped organize the 1963 March on Washington that JFK, in fact, tried to keep from happening. One well-known guest whose filter was in the shop groused that JFK’s death “affected my career; I like to think I would have been in line” for even more prestigious jobs had he lived. Another asked Ted Kennedy Jr.’s wife, Kiki, “Is that really your name?”

And the resentment some Kennedy staffers felt toward their newly sworn-in president, Lyndon Johnson, when he returned to Washington from Dallas still hasn’t burned away: “It was his desk’’ — JFK’s, not LBJ’s — said a woman who stayed on in the White House but never felt about Johnson as she had about Kennedy. “They’d just put new carpet in” the Oval Office. “It was his.”

Which is why the most important moment of the night came near the end of the evening. Over dessert — Poire Jacqueline and the same flourless chocolate petit fours that the president liked — Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her cousin Teddy rang a bell to quiet the crowd. “Just like Thanksgiving at Ethel’s, where a lot of you have been,’’ Ted said, “though there, if you get up for seconds, you probably just lost your chair.’’

Then Townsend called up LBJ’s daughter Lynda Johnson Robb, and the two women put their arms around each other’s waists and stood together.

“As many of you have heard, sometimes our fathers didn’t get along,’’ said Townsend, whose use of understatement got a big laugh, but “they shared so much, and shared a love of country.”

Robb was both misty and on fire: “How young all of you were” when America actually believed in the power of government as a force for good. “I just want to lay something down: The Kennedys were great friends of ours.” Her parents “loved President and Mrs. Kennedy — and they liked a lot of the other Kennedys, too.” From his table, Ted Kennedy shouted, “Stop right there!”

She didn’t: “Let’s stop trying to pick fights. My daddy used to say [to the press], ‘Your job is to pick fights, and mine is to stop them.’ Let’s celebrate those happy times when we worked together to make this country great!”

“Oh, she’s her father’s daughter!” said a guest at the next table over. And maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose husband, Dick Goodwin, worked for Kennedy, and she for LBJ, said that “what mattered to me most” was to have the Kennedys and the Johnsons brought together like that, even so late and for a minute. “What Kennedy started — Medicare, civil rights — LBJ finished.”

A theme that the guests kept coming back to was what we have to do to get Americans once again asking what they can do for their country: “If you don’t like this Congress,’’ Peters said, “then run for the state legislature and vote on redistricting!”

“I think it’s time the people’s inventiveness came to life” again, said Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s special assistant on civil rights, later representing Pennsylvania in the Senate. Kearns Goodwin quoted S.S. McClure, a crusading journalist she learned more about while researching her new book, “The Bully Pulpit,” about Teddy Roosevelt’s friendship with William Howard Taft: “There’s no one left but all of us,” she said.

The party went late for Washington, and the Kennedys stayed until the end — until all but a handful had gone off promising the hostess that they’d soon see her for lunch.

 
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