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EXCERPT: When JFK Came To Stay, From 'I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People' By Marian Cannon Schlesinger

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Taken from "I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People" by Marian Cannon Schlesinger (TidePool Press)

It was in the long living room of our house one January afternoon in 1961 that Jack Kennedy chose some of the men who went with him to Washington.

He had asked Arthur if he could use our house, while in town attending a meeting of the Harvard Overseers, for interviewing prospective members of his administration. It was a bitter, leaden-gray day with no snow, but the threat hung heavily in the air.

The Secret Service had come the day before and spread out through the rooms, examining entrances and exits. They had reconnoitered the backyard and asked questions about the neighbors, one a bed-ridden old lady, another a timid paleontologist, and the third, looming over the garden wall, John Kenneth Galbraith at six-foot-nine inches.

That morning, the Cambridge police put up sawhorses along Irving Street, and by mid-afternoon five or six policemen patrolled the street, flailing their arms to keep warm in the frigid weather. The fallen leaves scudded along, driven by the wind, making scratchy noises against the front steps and the granite curbstones. The neighbors began to gather until the street outside, usually so deserted, was full of children on bicycles and mothers with their babies in carriages, bundled against the cold.

Even the usually blasé graduate students stopped on their well trodden paths to gape, and interlopers came together in knots leaning against the Tozzers’ brick wall across the street. The only dissenting voice appeared to be an elderly neighbor, a staunch Republican, who complained, when she had to alight from her chauffeur-driven car and walk a half a block to her house, “all because some Irishman has been elected president.”

The excitement was electric when the parade of black Cadillacs drew up and the President-elect emerged from one limousine, trailed by newspaper photographers, Secret Service men, and various nameless aides. Without missing a step, he turned and waved to the crowd, then shook hands with the cops whose beaming faces seemed to bespeak their inner thoughts, “Here’s one of ours.” Kennedy quickly bounded up the steps, so vigorous, so vital, so attractive. Inside, he shook hands with members of the household shyly lined up in awe to greet him, various children and their lucky best pals, and two sweet Irish cleaning women, angels of order, who took turns resolving the chaos of a hectic household. Then he disappeared into the living room.

At one point, Kennedy had to use a private telephone. I recall his vaulting up the staircase, two steps at a time, to use the phone in my catchall of a “sewing room,” where I had thrown all the general refuse of the family—shoes, toys, discarded children’s clothes, cancelled checks on my desk, and no doubt children’s half-eaten, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches—thinking that no one would penetrate the room, much less a future president of the United States.

It was in the midst of this mess that he no doubt conducted high-level government business, or, according to later testimony, perhaps other and less exalted affairs of state. At any rate, the telephone was hardly “secure.” No matter how rueful I felt to be “found out,” I am sure he could not have cared less.

...

I first met Jack Kennedy when he came to our house for Sunday lunch in the early spring of 1952. He was then the U.S. Representative for the Massachusetts 10th District. He was delivered at the door by one of his hirelings, who sat hunched behind the wheel of a black Olds for at least two hours in the chilly April cold. There seemed always to be small, goony creatures in large black cars waiting for Kennedys outside houses, restaurants or meeting halls, no matter how cold the weather or how long the stay. The other guests were the McGeorge Bundys and Paul Douglas, U.S. Senator from Illinois, who was in Cambridge to deliver the Godkin Lectures at Harvard.

At lunch there was some discussion of Kennedy’s running for the Senate in the fall. In much the same spirit of rigorous rectitude expressed in his lectures, Douglas rather patronizingly advised the young man that it would be better to serve his apprenticeship in the House for a few more terms before moving on. I was intrigued by Kennedy’s response. His manners could not have been more respectful, as he listened to his elders and putative betters with what appeared to be thoughtful and serious attention.

I often reflect on my own reaction to this courteous, attractive young man. I had been brought up in an academic family in Cambridge whose members thought of themselves as liberals and good Democrats. But there was an inborn sense of anti-Catholicism and with it anti-Irish sentiment on the part of many middle-class, Protestant Cantabridgians, especially high-minded liberal types who felt that Irish politicians were ruining the city, appointing their relatives to jobs from city clerks to librarians, whether qualified or not.

In a funny way, as a child, I always had the latent sense of being anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, in spite of the fact that I went to public school where most of my classmates and many of my friends were Irish Catholics. I guess I partook of the atmosphere of the times. It was an unthinking and deplorable prejudice. So when this attractive, well-bred, sophisticated young man came in, I was completely unprepared. I think it was at that moment that whatever prejudice was left in me melted away.

I was charmed by his courtesy, but I also remember thinking, in spite of his worldliness and sophistication, that there was something rather parochial about him. I had a feeling that he was in an alien atmosphere and wasn’t comfortable. He had for me the somewhat dubious air of a young man who had wandered into a nest of pure-minded intellectuals, who, as far as he was concerned, spouted nonsense and foolish chitchat. And perhaps he was right, for, of course, he went on to defeat Henry Cabot Lodge the following November. The next time I met him the intellectuals were falling all over him.

As time went on, I had a sense that the Kennedys were not in the old-fashioned American political tradition. They were the wave of the future, something new and exotic on the political scene. I thought, if Truman had come to lunch that day, I would have had a greater feeling of affinity and familiarity with him than I had with Kennedy. Though they were both “ward” politicians in a sense (pay off your pals, etc.), I felt in a funny way that Kennedy belonged to a different political culture.

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