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Political Notebook

Half-century later, Kennedy staffers reunite at archives

National Archives and Records Administration

Mary White, an assistant to John F. Kennedy's chief speech writer with Paul Nejelski, whose wife Marilyn worked in congressional relations in the Kennedy White House.

WASHINGTON — Some arrived in the afternoon drizzle with the aid of canes. Others steadied themselves on the arms of spouses. But they displayed much of the same determination they had a half a century ago when they were the foot soldiers of President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.

A handful of surviving members of the 35th president’s White House staff came together Wednesday to relive heady times that have long since passed into American myth. They were invited for a private tour of the exhibit, “To The Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” on display at the National Archives.

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Unlike the tourists straining to get a good look at the displays, or leaning in to hear the White House recordings from those 13 dangerous days, theirs were expressions of recognition. They had been there.

“I never thought back then when I typed up those speeches they would be in the National Archives someday,” said Mary White, who was an assistant to Kennedy’s speechwriter and alter ego Theodore Sorensen, who died in 2010.

White, who had joined the White House staff after playing a leading role in Students for Kennedy-Johnson in 1960, had typed the speech President Kennedy delivered to a nervous nation on Oct. 22, 1962, announcing a blockade of Soviet ships supplying missiles to Cuba. She also typed the one he thankfully never had to deliver: announcing an all-out invasion of the Caribbean island.

Listening to JFK in the Oval Office gravely warning Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev of the consequences if the missiles were not removed, Marilyn Nejelski, who worked in congressional relations, remarked, to no one in particular: “Right, it was the midterm elections.

“That is why he was in Chicago and they said he had a cold so he could come back to Washington,” she said, referring to the ruse the White House used to get the president back without alarming the public or tipping off the Soviets.

John Cochran had been a soldier in the Army Signal Corps assigned to work in the White House as a radio operator. Lenny Donnelly worked in the visitor’s office. Nancy Hogan Dutton had been assistant for intergovernmental affairs.

But the dean of the group was Jean Lewis, 94, who first went to work for Kennedy in 1957, when he was a senator from Massachusetts.

What did she remember most about him, nearly 50 years since his assassination?

“He always knew when my mother was coming to visit from Alabama,” she said as she was walking briskly to catch up with the group. “He always made a point to come say hello if she visited the office.’’

Afterward, snacking on cake and coffee with David Ferriero, a Beverly native who is the archivist of the United States, some told stories of palace intrigue. They said their recollections were “off the record.”

But Dutton, the baby of the group at 74, said she did want to be quoted about one thing she would rather forget from those years: “Women were not allowed to use the White House mess. In the Kennedy White House women belonged in the kitchen, in the parlor, in the bed, or behind a typewriter.”

GOP may offer short-term extension on debt limit

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Gathered for a retreat to map out how to manage coming confrontations with President Obama and congressional Democrats, often combative House Republicans seemed Thursday to be looking for a quick way out of one imminent fight.

Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republicans’ former vice-presidential nominee and an influential party voice on fiscal policy, said Republicans were considering allowing a short-term extension of the federal debt limit of a month or so to foster more discussion about spending cuts.

‘‘We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension, so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March,’’ said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.

Obama has said he will not negotiate over increasing the debt limit. If House Republicans, who lost seats in November and have low approval ratings, take a hard line, it could leave them getting most of the blame for any government default and subsequent economic turmoil.

Though a short-term extension might be seen as a momentary surrender, it could tie the debt topic into discussions about across-the-board military and domestic spending cuts set to hit March 1 and the expiration on March 27 of a stopgap law funding the government. Republicans say the timing could give them more room to fight for cuts.

Debriefing reporters after a morning session, which was closed to the news media, Ryan said he had warned members that they had to ‘‘recognize the realities of the divided government that we have’’ and urged them to unite behind leadership on the coming fiscal debates.

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