Wednesday, March 14, 2018

JFK and the Famous Jefferson Quote

What most people know about the April 1962 Nobel Prize dinner at the White House is a famous quote from President Kennedy.  He 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.”

The remarks were originally drafted by aide Arthur Schlesinger and significantly enhanced by Kennedy.  Schlesinger’s dry iteration focused on Alfred Nobel, the dynamite manufacturer and the founder of the prestigious international prizes, and ended with a three-paragraph toast, quoting Benjamin Franklin. 

Kennedy, who took pride in his writing, was in essence an effective conceptualizer and editor with a talent for humor and an ability to combine soaring rhetoric with a common appeal.  He wrote two bestselling books, Why England Slept (1940) and, of course, Profiles in Courage (1956), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.  Neither book was flawless, but they were read.

Much of this speeches, articles and even Profiles in Courage were a collaborative effort with Ted Sorensen, a master wordsmith.  But, again, Kennedy was actively engaged in his works.  It is interesting to see his handwritten changes on various documents that are now stored at the Kennedy Library in Boston.

By the way, although the Jefferson quote was memorable, the premise is faulty:  The third president rarely dined alone.  He was quite social and regularly invited members of Congress, their wives, and others to the executive mansion.  He planned the dinners and even kept a running guest list.

For more on JFK's remarks and the Nobel evening see Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge, available April 3).

The image here is of the initial draft of the first of four pages of comments that President Kennedy delivered on April 29, 1962 at the White House.  Note his addition on the left margin about Thomas Jefferson; further changes were made.  Source:  Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President's Office Files. Speech Files. Remarks at Nobel Prize winners dinner, 29 April 1962. 

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