Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday: JFK on Jefferson

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 13, 2019

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Added recently to the lexicon of the American presidency, for better or worse, is a new term: “executive time.” Like so much that baffles these days, the phrase does not mean, exactly, what it seems to indicate. The word “executive” denotes administrative or managerial authority; and “time”, well, that is what most executives, presidents especially, complain of never having enough of. Yet “executive time” suggests that the Chief Executive spends up to  60% of his scheduled working hours watching television, calling friends, and tweeting. This would appear to be a singular development, as presidents – if for no other reason, by virtue of their having attained the presidency itself – tend to over-work. James Polk, for instance, served 1,461 days and took off, to relax, about 42 of them. Lyndon B. Johnson worked a double-shift, rising early, taking a two-hour mid-day break, and then began another full workday. Even the laid-back Ronald Reagan, who joked he’d issued an order to wake him, no matter what, in case of bad news – even if he was in a meeting – kept punctual office hours and carried home hours of paperwork.

When President Kennedy wrote, and re-wrote, this letter, sometime on June 5, 1962, he had already reviewed the Presidential Daily Brief in his bath, read six newspapers over coffee, breakfasted with Democratic Congressional leaders, met astronaut Scott Carpenter and his family at the White House, welcomed Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios at the airport, lunched with him at the White House, held a meeting with him in the Oval Office –  and had a meeting, too, presumably about Cyprus, with U.N. Representative Adlai Stevenson. No wonder, then, that Kennedy writes here that because his “present job” takes up all his time, he couldn’t do what he found so tempting: to write about Thomas Jefferson.

Image: "Thomas Jefferson" by Thomas Sully. Library of Congress.

It makes sense. Before he was President, or Senator, or Congressman, or war hero, Jack Kennedy was a journalist with a special interest in American history. That he write a book, then, about Thomas Jefferson, must have seemed a likely proposition – to, say, a New York publisher with too much time on his hands. Time, though, was what President Kennedy didn’t have, and says so here: his “present job” takes up all of it, and consequently, he must resist the temptation to write about Jefferson.

But if – if – if Kennedy hadn’t a day job, and a night job, and a weekend job; if, somehow, the presidency wasn’t, in the famous words of a predecessor, a life of bondage, responsibility and toil – if he could not write about Jefferson, here are two drafts of the same letter giving evidence that he would at least, whenever possible, write like him. Jefferson, after all, having penned the Declaration of Independence, set the standard for the spare and elegant, and that was a style to which JFK, beginning with his Inaugural, sought to emulate.  He could not but help look at an early version of a letter about Jefferson, then, and not dicker with the verbiage. His pleasure, if not job, was to make it better.

The original version set before Kennedy read, in part:

I quite agree with you that the scope of Jefferson’s contributions to American life are not as widely known as they should be, and if I were not otherwise engaged I would be tempted to consider your proposal. My present job, however, takes all of my time so I must refuse.

This Kennedy emended here, so that passage, in the final version sent forward, read as follows:

Even though there have been several admirable works on Thomas Jefferson I quite agree with you that his varied contributions to American life are not as fully known as they should be.  If I were not otherwise engaged I would be tempted to consider your proposal.  My present job, however, takes all of my time so I must refuse.

Kennedy, it is noted, felt – half in admiration and half in regret – that for all his stylistic emulation of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson was the better writer. That he never had the opportunity to yield to the temptation to write about him, is yet one more lost dream of Camelot.

But Kennedy did find time, on the night of April 29th 1962, to famously salute the third President. In a legendary toast at a White House dinner in honor of  49 Nobel Prize winners, Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

That dinner, the largest one of the Kennedy years, was called by one White House staffer the “Brains Dinner” because, among the 175 invited guests, were America’s leading scientists, writers, scholars and intellectuals. Indeed, it was hailed as a definitive symbol of Kennedy’s remarkable, and tragically truncated, presidency. The “Dinner in Camelot”, a poet ruefully remarked some half-century later, showed “how far we have to go to simply return to what we once, almost, possessed.”

Image: "Portrait of John F. Kennedy" (1967) Jamie Wyeth; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

President Kennedy, of course, died in office, assassinated: he never had the chance to write for Doubleday, or anyone else. But his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, took a job there, as an editor, in 1978, working at the eminent firm until her death. No doubt she knew Doubleday’s storied Ken McCormick – he who edited Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and a host of worthies –  and or at least saw him, then a very old man, shuffling through the hallways, like a ghost.

JOHN F. KENNEDY. 1917 – 1963. The 35th President of the United States.

KENNETH McCORMICK. 1906-1997. Legendary New York editor of publishing titan, Doubleday; he famously worked with several presidents.

Typed Letter, being a draft with numerous Autograph emendations, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, June 5, 1962. To Ken McCormick in New York.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, June 5, 1962. To Ken McCormick at Doubleday and Co. in New York.