Weather forecasters had predicted light snow turning to rain on the eve of President Kennedy’s inauguration, but the snow fell heavily and steadily, covering Pennsylvania Avenue with an eight-inch white blanket and forcing the Army Corps of Engineers' snow-removal force to work through the night to clear the parade route. Jan. 20, 1961, dawned sunny and cold, with gusty winds that made the 22 degrees registered at noon for the swearing-in feel like seven degrees.
It had just begun to snow when press aide Sue Vogelsinger made her way to the Mayflower Hotel to give Harry Truman an advance copy of the inaugural speech.
She found one Secret Service agent standing guard, told him why she was there, and he said, “Sure, just knock on the door.” The former president came to the door in his bedroom slippers. “Have you met Bess?” he asked, inviting the young aide in and introducing her to Mrs. Truman, who sat there knitting away.
It was a day, 50 years ago, frozen in our memories, at least those of us old enough to remember it. But the haze of history masks the random collection of personal experiences and inconveniences for those who were there.
The Mayflower was the favored gathering place for politicians and Democratic activists coming to Washington to celebrate their return to power. Journalist John Seigenthaler was having drinks at the Mayflower with two veteran New York congressmen. “What’s the best inaugural you’ve been to?” he asked. “The one we’re going to tomorrow,” said Rep. Charles Buckley of New York.
“What about FDR?” exclaimed Seigenthaler. “What Charlie means is tomorrow night an Irish Catholic sleeps in the White House,” explained Brooklyn Rep. Eugene Keogh.
“We forget, looking back on it, how powerful the anti-Catholic effort was,” Seigenthaler says now. “There were frozen tears of joy on the cheeks of Irish Catholics that day,” says the journalist, who would go to the Justice Department as a top assistant to Robert Kennedy. “It sounds a bit clichéd now to talk about the New Frontier and what it meant, and sure it was political sloganeering, but for those of us in the campaign and planning to stay on in the administration, it was a meaningful mantra—a passing of the torch and changing of the guard.”
Dignitaries assembled on the inaugural platform with seating marked for the various political tribes: the Eisenhower and Nixon contingents, the Kennedy-Johnson family and friends. Philip Bobbitt, age 12, a nephew of Lyndon Johnson, sat next to Gov. Pat Brown of California (father of current governor Jerry). As Cardinal Cushing, a traditionalist with a heavy Boston accent, went on at some length with his prayer, Governor Brown leaned over to the young boy and said, “If he doesn’t stop now, I’m quitting the church.”
The glare from the sun made it impossible for Robert Frost to read the poem he had written for Kennedy, titled “Dedication.” Bobbitt, now a law professor at Columbia University and lecturer at the University of Texas, remembers his Uncle Lyndon gallantly using his hat to try to shield the sun, but it didn’t work, and Frost fell back on an earlier poem he knew well, “The Gift Outright,” reciting it from memory. “We were all very excited,” Bobbitt says, “but my memory is mostly about being cold.”
Kathleen, the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, watched the swearing-in from the camera platform facing the ceremony. She was with her four younger siblings—Joe, Bobby, David, and Courtney—and to a 9-year-old, standing and cold, the whole thing felt kind of remote. “I knew I was supposed to think this was very historic, but all the adults were taller and we couldn’t see well. I remember scooting up to see what I could on a small TV.” She does remember how Frank Sinatra stuck his head into her bedroom to say hello: “I thought that was cool.” Sinatra had recorded a Kennedy campaign song to the tune of “High Hopes,” which Kathleen sings unprompted. Another memorable moment was actress Kim Novak “tobogganing with us in the snow.” Joan Kennedy had campaigned in West Virginia for her brother-in-law, going down into a coal mine with him, and sitting there that day she thought how remarkable it was that “you could be in a coal mine and two months later be inaugurated president. The contrast says a lot about democratic politics that’s good.” She had campaigned for Jack all over the country, but West Virginia stood out. “Jack said we had to win in West Virginia to prove that a Catholic could win because there were so few Catholics there, only 1 or 2 percent.” She remembered how cold and dark and dank the mine was, and how the coal miners were so eager to meet them.
As family and friends descended on the White House, cold and hungry, Jackie Kennedy’s newly appointed social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, bustled about, worrying whether there was enough heat in the corner bedrooms and whether the food passed muster with Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch. “She wanted proper little sandwiches, the kind they had at tea time, and little cream desserts—she was very thrifty, wanted to make sure we used up everything, and also that we had enough. She whispered in our ears, and when Mama Rose whispered, you jumped … She was the bountiful grandmother orchestrating everybody’s stomach.”
What Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, the last surviving Kennedy sibling, remembers most from the inauguration is an impromptu family lunch of hot soup and sandwiches in the White House. “It was just us,” she says, “my brother and sisters and their husbands, and Bobby and Teddy. We just talked about the campaign and how we won everything and that’s why he was president, just jokes. And then he signed a picture for us, and it said, ‘To Jean, Don’t deny you did it,’ and I thought how wonderful, and of course he put the same thing to Pat. He meant that we made him president … He always had a terrific sense of humor. And you know he didn’t seem young to us because of course he was older than all of us.”
After the swearing-in, speechwriter and new special assistant to the president Richard Goodwin, hatless and coatless, walked the two miles from the Capitol to the White House. Freezing, he retreated to the White House to look for his new office, when who should he encounter walking down the hallway but “the guy I had been traveling the country with for the last year and a half—Kennedy. And he said, ‘Dick, did you see the Coast Guard contingent in the parade? There was not a single black face in that delegation, and I want you to do something about it right away.’
“So I ran upstairs to my office in the West Wing and I said, ‘Who’s in charge of the Coast Guard?’ I learned they’re not under the Defense Department; they’re under the Treasury Department. So I called Douglas Dillon, the new Treasury secretary. And it struck me as I went up the stairs that we’ll no longer just make speeches, we actually can do something about this. I told Dillon and within a few months the Coast Guard Academy was integrated.”
NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur covered the inauguration from inside the rotunda of the Capitol, watching it on TV. Print still ruled, but the networks were beginning to gain a greater foothold, and the Kennedy campaign wasn’t suspicious of the press as the Nixon campaign had been, which made for a freer and easier exchange. Vanocur remembers the new president stopping by a Democratic National Committee meeting at the Mayflower, and when a reporter asked what Truman thought of the changes in the White House he’d left eight years earlier, Kennedy responded that all Truman would say about Eisenhower is “the sonofabitch moved my piano to the basement.”
Sue Vogelsinger, the young press aide, ended up checking herself in to the hospital that evening, suffering from exhaustion after months on the campaign trail. She didn’t get to the White House until the following day, and the next night she ran into the new president, who was walking around by himself checking out the West Wing and fretting about the state of disrepair. “This is really bad,” he said, looking at the chipped floors. “You think that’s bad, come see the press office,” Vogelsinger told him, which he pronounced “worse than the Senate office.” The press office was around the corner from the Oval Office (it still is), and the three wire machines (AP, UP and Agence France-Presse) were kept in the press secretary’s private bathroom. Kennedy could hear the bells go off signaling urgent news and he’d be there.
Kennedy paid close attention to what journalists wrote about him. He would say, “I’d rather be Krocked than Fleesonized,” a reference to liberal Democratic columnist Doris Fleeson versus the more conservative New York Times’s Arthur Krock. Fleeson was a Kennedy favorite, and in early May 1961, she had a medical problem and needed someone to ghostwrite her column. She was a good friend of Kennedy special assistant Fred Dutton, and he agreed to take on the task, two columns a week for three weeks. “And Fred uses this as a way to goad the president for not being liberal enough, that he’s selling out on taxes,” recalls Dutton’s widow, Nancy. “So the president walks in with the Washington Star one afternoon, throws it on Dutton’s desk, and says, ‘Can’t you control that friend of yours?’”
Fifty years after Kennedy’s inauguration, the memories that linger remind us of a time when all seemed possible, when a politician could capture the imagination of a country. Those who were there knew it was special, and while Kennedy’s presidency was brief, his impact endures.
Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for NEWSWEEK.
This story originally appeared on The Daily Beast.