'Letters to Jackie': Book Excerpt

Fashions and mores of all kinds have changed. And yet for many Americans a filament of recollection easily brings back the incandescence of the early 1960s, when the nation appeared in some ways as bright and as full of promise as its handsome President. Millions still recall how in the passage of a single moment, much of the confi dence, energy, and hopeful idealism that Kennedy appeared to exemplify were suddenly swept away. As one young mother predicted shortly after the assassination, "Surely this generation has a deep scar on our hearts which we will carry to our graves."

That scar has inevitably faded in the nearly half century since the assassination. Time has dimmed once vivid memories of the nation's first "television President" -- a man whose verve, intelligence, humor, and grace captivated the public. The personal and political mythology burnished in the first years after the assassination have rightly given way in the ensuing decades to a much more complex view of President Kennedy and his administration. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of a more sober, more stark assessment of Kennedy that it is difficult to evoke today the soaring idealism, fresh hope, and sense of possibility that many Americans saw in him. Still, whatever history's judgments about the merits and consequences of those expectations, there can be little doubt that millions of Americans who lived through the Kennedy assassination felt that they had experienced a calamity that they would not forget.

A largely unexamined, and never before published, collection of letters to Jacqueline Kennedy stored in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library vividly brings to life what the President and his death meant to thousands of Americans in the days and months following the assassination. "How does a nobody write to the wife of our late President?" asked one woman as she began a letter to Mrs. Kennedy four days after the death of JFK. In overcoming her hesitation, this letter writer resembled more than a million and a half other individuals who wrote messages of condolence to the former First Lady. Th e President died on a Friday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. Th e following Monday, mail delivery to the White House brought a mountain of letters -- 45,000 on one day -- from bereaved citizens, many of whom had sat down within minutes or hours of the assassination to share their grief, shock, and sense of outrage. Piled into cardboard boxes, and then stacked, these containers soon stretched from floor to ceiling, taking up space beyond the offi ces where "social correspondence" was normally handled and spilling out into the White House corridors. The volume of mail quickly overwhelmed Jacqueline Kennedy's small White House staff, which was nonetheless instructed by the Pentagon to open every single item for "security reasons." On one occasion, loud ticking from a package raised anxieties, until the box was found to contain a wind-up toy sent from Germany to three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr.

Within seven weeks of the President's death, Jacqueline Kennedy had already received over 800,000 condolence letters. In a population of nearly 190 million, those who took the time to pen a letter to Mrs. Kennedy were clearly exceptional. But the sheer volume of mail, the rapidity with which their messages appeared, the extraordinary diversity of the letter writers, and the parallel manifestations of national grief and mourning evident in the country make the letters a notable element of the public response to the assassination. Th ese individual expressions of grief off er in vivid detail aspects of the widespread reaction to President Kennedy's death.

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