WASHINGTON _ Some arrived in the afternoon drizzle with the aid of canes. Others steadied themselves on the arm of a spouse. But they were as determined as half a century ago when they were the foot soldiers of President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.
A handful of surviving members of the 35th president’s White House staff came together Wednesday to relive those heady times that have long since passed for American myth. They were invited for a private tour of the exhibit, “To The Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis,’’ on display at the National Archives.
Unlike the tourists straining to get a good look at the displays, or leaning in to hear the White House recordings from those 13 dangerous days, theirs were expressions of recognition. They had been there. They played a part in the 1,000 days of Kennedy’s presidency that has come to be known as Camelot.
“I never thought back then when I typed up those speeches they would be in the National Archives someday,’’ said Mary White, who was an assistant to Kennedy’s speechwriter and alter ego Theodore Sorensen, who passed away in 2010.
White, who had joined the White House staff after playing a leading role in Students for Kennedy-Johnson in 1960, had typed the speech President Kennedy delivered to a nervous nation on October 22, 1962, announcing a blockade of Soviet ships supplying missiles to Cuba. She also typed the one he thankfully never had to deliver: announcing an all-out invasion of the Caribbean Island.
Listening to JFK in the Oval Office gravely warning Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev of the consequences if the missiles were not removed, Marilyn Nejelski, who worked in congressional relations, remarked, to no one in particular: “Right, it was the midterm elections. That is why he was in Chicago and they said he had a cold so he could come back to Washington.’’
John Cochran had been a young enlisted soldier in the Army Signal Corps assigned to work in the White House as a radio operator. Lenny Donnelly worked in the visitor’s office. Nancy Hogan Dutton had been assistant for intergovernmental affairs.
But the dean of the group was Jean Lewis, 94, who first went to work for Kennedy in 1957, when he was a senator from Massachusetts.
What did she remember most about him, nearly 50 years since his assassination?
“He always knew when my mother was coming to visit from Alabama,’’ she said as she was walking quite briskly to catch up with the group. “He always made a point to come say hello if she visited the office. I remember when he was trying to integrate the University of Mississippi he asked me what my mother thought. She said to tell him it was all the fault of those southern judges.’’
Afterward, snacking on cake and coffee with David Ferriero, a Beverly native who is the Archivist of the United States, some told stories of palace intrigue. They said their recollections were “off the record.’’
But Dutton, the baby of the group at 74, said she did want to be quoted about one thing she would rather forget from those years.
“Women were not allowed to use the White House mess,’’ she said. “In the Kennedy White House women belonged in the kitchen, in the parlor, in the bed, or behind a typewriter.’’