Letters reveal public distaste for booze in JFK White House

BOSTON (AP) — It was a tempest in a teapot — or, more accurately, a whiskey tumbler.

Presidential transitions are always at least a little tricky. Case in point: Researchers at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum have found a cache of letters from Americans objecting to JFK’s embrace of cocktails at White House events.

The letters shed new insight into President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s handoff to Kennedy early in 1961, and the strikingly different attitudes that people held about alcohol at official functions.

31 PHOTOSInside JFK and Jackie Kennedy's weddingSee GalleryInside JFK and Jackie Kennedy's wedding(Original Caption) Newport, RI: Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and his bride, the former Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, cut their wedding cake after their marriage yesterday at St. Mary’s Church in Newport.(Original Caption) Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and wedding party after church ceremony. Photo.(Original Caption) Jackie and John Kennedy cut their wedding cake in 1953. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)(Original Caption) Mr and Mrs. John F. Kennedy cutting their wedding cake.Jackie and JFK in 1953The wedding party posing So in love! A little girl smelling a flower at John F. Kennedy’s wedding reception. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Guests attending John F. Kennedy’s wedding reception. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier sit together in the sunshine at Kennedy’s family home at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a few months before their wedding.Two little girls playing at John F. Kennedy’s (L) wedding breakfast.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963), Democratic senator for Massachusetts, escorts his bride Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (1929 – 1994) down the church aisle shortly after their wedding ceremony at Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)(Original Caption) 9/10/1953- Hyannisport, MA: Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) and Miss Jaqueline Lee Bouvier of Newport, RI, will be married September 12 at Newport, in one of the most elaborate weddings of the current season. The couple are shown above at Kennedy’s Hyannisport, MA home shortly after their engagement was announced recently. Miss Bouvier sips a cup of tea demurely.Socialite Jacqueline Bouvier fixing veil of wedding dress outdoors at Hammersmith Farm on day of her marriage to Sen. John Kennedy.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Sen. John Kennedy (R) w. bride Jacqueline (L) in wedding attire, sitting together at table, eating pineapple salad at formally set table outdoors at their wedding reception.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Jacqueline Bouvier in gorgeous Battenburg wedding dress w. her husband Sen. John Kennedy as they stand in front of church after wedding ceremony.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Former US Amb. to Great Britain Joseph Kennedy, dancing with son John F. Kennedy’s bride, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, at their wedding reception held at her mother’s home.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Jacqueline Bouvier (C), bride of Sen. John F. Kennedy, wearing a gorgeous off-the-shoulder wedding dress.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Sen. John F. Kennedy (4R) with his bride Jacqueline at their wedding reception.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline (C), standing with a group of ushers.(Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)12th September 1953:John Kennedy (1917 -1963) and Jacqueline Bouvier (1929 – 1994) pose with their ushers and maids of honor on their wedding day, Newport, Rhode Island.(Photo by MPI/Getty Images)NEWPORT, RI – SEPTEMBER 12: Senator Leverett Saltonstall congratulates Sen. John F. Kennedy at the wedding reception as Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier, looks on, Sept. 12, 1953. (Photo by Charles McCormick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)View from behind of Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (in a Battenburg wedding dress) as she dances with her husband, future US President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963) at their wedding reception, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Portrait of future US President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963) (middle row, center) and Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (in a Battenburg wedding dress), as they pose with their groomsmen, among them Kennedy’s brothers Ted Kennedy (1932 – 2009) (middle row, left) and Robert Kennedy (1925 – 1968) (middle row, second right) on the day of his wedding, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)View of the head table of at the Kennedy wedding reception, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. Among those pictured are Robert Kennedy (1925 – 1968) (seated, second left), bride Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (seated, center) (in a Battenburg wedding dress), groom and future US President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963) (seated second, right); standing behind them is Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921 – 2009). (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Low-angle view of future US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (in a Battenburg wedding dress) as she holds the arm of her husband, future US President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963), in front of St Mary’s Church after their wedding ceremony, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Future US President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963) and Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (in a Battenburg wedding dress) take the first dance at their wedding reception, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Future US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (in a Battenburg wedding dress) is escorted to St Mary’s Church by her stepfather, Hugh D Auchincloss (1897 – 1976) for her wedding to John F Kennedy who walked her down the aisle, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Future US President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963) and Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) (in a Battenburg wedding dress) stand in front of St Mary’s Church after their wedding ceremony, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)American future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 – 1994) poses with her husband politician and future US President John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) immediately after their wedding at Hammerstein Farm Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)Senator John F. Kennedy and his bride, the former Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, leave a Newport, Rhode Island, church following their wedding ceremony. An estimated one thousand people waited outside the church for the newlyweds.Up Next

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“Liquor dulls the brain and loosens the tongue,” one disappointed citizen, Kenneth P. Kennedy of Sparta, Illinois — no relation to JFK — wrote to the nation’s newly minted 35th president. “Can we risk our national and international security on such potential incompetence?”

Eisenhower was no teetotaler, but historians say he presided over a largely cocktail-free White House. Enter Kennedy, who had already raised some eyebrows as the first Roman Catholic to be elected president.

JFK Library archivists say the letters of protest began arriving after newspapers reported on Kennedy’s first official event: a January 1961 reception honoring the new president’s appointees.

“For the first time, there was a bar in the State Dining Room, with waiters to stir up martinis or pour vodka, Scotch, bourbon, or champagne,” The Washington Post reported.

What followed was a sort of low-key Liquorgate. Letters — some typed, others handwritten — expressed shock and worry that the U.S. would lose its dignity and standing in the world.

“Dear Mr. President, I think many feel humiliation and disgrace over our nation today when we learn of our White House turned into shameful drunken all-night carousal and dancing,” reads one from Edith Fritz, of Idaho. “Dignity previously engendered — gone. May God have pity upon your poor soul.”

“Our nation was founded by men of Christian ideals. Let’s keep it that way,” reads another from Ruby Turner, of Dunkerton, Iowa.

Another, scribbled by a writer from Louisiana whose name and hometown are illegible, reads: “The White House is a national shrine to us — all those who love America — and we would like to have it presented to other nations as a dignified, respectable home, not ‘a well-stocked bar, with scotch, gin and vodka flowing freely.’”

The letters were buried deep in the vast White House Public Opinion Mail collection, the presidential library said, noting the dispute “could easily have been lost to history.”

At the time, scholars say, the Kennedy administration played down the public’s reaction to the change, noting it received far more letters about civil rights unrest and the Cuban missile crisis.

In a JFK Library blog post Wednesday, archivists Dana Bronson and Stacey Chandler noted that transitions from one president to another are closely watched for shifts in both style and substance.

And presidents have held wide-ranging attitudes toward alcohol. George Washington, the nation’s first, is said to have enjoyed whiskey; President Donald Trump, its 45th, doesn’t drink at all, though he has had wine served at state dinners and other functions.

Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent in November, doesn’t drink, either. Like Trump, the former vice president has pointed to alcoholism in his family in explaining why he abstains. 

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