BOSTON — 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.
“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 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.