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Home : Biography : American Presidents
BIOGRAPHY : American Presidents

 

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J.F.K.

The taste of victory was fresh and sweet to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Just about a year ago, he sat in the drawing room of his Georgetown home and spoke breezily about the office he would assume. "Sure it's a big job," he said. "But I don't know anybody who can do it any better than I can. I'm going to be in it for four years. It isn't going to be so bad. you've got time to think -- and besides, the pay is pretty good."

One year later, on a cool, grey day, the 35th President of the United States sat at his desk in the oval office of the White House and discussed the same subject. "This job is interesting," he said in that combination of Irish slur and broad Bostonese that has become immediately identifiable on all the world's radios, "but the possibilities for trouble are unlimited. It represents a chance to exercise your judgment on matters of importance. It takes a lot of thought and effort. It's been a tough first year, but then they're all going to be tough."

The words, not particularly memorable, might have come from any of a thousand thoughtful executives after a year on the job. But here they were spoken by the still-young executive in the world's biggest job, and they showed the difference in attitude and tone that twelve months in the White House have worked on John F. Kennedy.

Jack Kennedy -- Man of the Year for 1961 -- had passionately sought the presidency. The closeness of his victory did not disturb him; he took over the office with a youth-can-do-anything sort of self-confidence. He learned better; but learn he did. And in so doing he not only made 1961 the most endlessly interesting and exciting presidential year within recent memory; he also made the process of his growing up to be President a saving factor for the U.S. in the cold war.

Kennedy has always had a way with the people -- a presence that fits many moods, a style that swings with grace from high formality to almost prankish casualness, a quick charm, the patience to listen, a sure social touch, an interest in knowledge and a greed for facts, a zest for play matched by a passion for work. Today his personal popularity compares favorably with such popular heroes as Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.

During 1961, Kennedy suffered some major setbacks, including one, in Cuba, that might have ruined some Presidents. (Richard Nixon has said: "If I had been responsible for failing to make a critical decision on the Cuban business which would have brought victory, I would have been impeached.") Yet, his popularity has remained consistently high, seemingly unaffected by his vicissitudes. In the latest Gallup poll, 78% of the American people said that they approved of the way he is doing his job. But personal popularity, as Kennedy well knows, is not always reflected in widespread support of public policy. To translate popularity into support is the job of the politician -- and the job to which Kennedy has come increasingly to devote his time and energy.

In many of the most visible ways, Kennedy has been little changed by the presidency. In the White House, he still fidgets around, prowling the corridors and offices, putting his feet on his chair, pulling up his socks, tapping his teeth, adjusting and readjusting the papers on his desk, occasionally answering his own telephone or making his own telephone calls. It used to be that the telephone salutation, "This is Jack," would bring the instinctive question, "Jack who?" But no longer. Now everyone in Washington knows who Jack is: he is the man at the other end of the line.

At 44, Kennedy's weight remains steady at 175 lbs. He has few more grey hairs or wrinkles of care than when he took office -- but he somehow looks older and more mature. Indeed he is older -- but in a way that the mere month-by-month passage of time could not have made him.

Less Than Omnipotent. Kennedy has come to realize that national and international issues look much different from the President's chair than from a candidate's rostrum. There are fewer certainties, and far more complexities. "We must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy, quick or permanent solutions," he said recently in Seattle. "And we must face the fact that the U.S. is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that therefore there cannot be an American solution for every world problem."

That sober view of the limitations of power and authority is far removed from Kennedy's campaign oratory, which often seemed to suggest that any problem could be solved if only enough vim and vigor were brought to bear on it. Kennedy promised a "New Frontier" to "get America moving again." He soon found that it was tough enough just to keep the old problems from getting out of hand.

Before he came to the White House, Kennedy chose as his model the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the New Deal years. He expressed admiration for Roosevelt's ability to "do" things and to "get things done," even adopted some of F.D.R.'s speech mannerisms (the cocked head, allusions to historical fact). Kennedy advisers talked about a Rooseveltian 100 days of dramatic success with Congress. But before the azaleas had bloomed in the White House garden the Roosevelt image went by the boards -- and so did the 100-day notion. "This period," says Kennedy today, with just a shade of irritation, "is entirely different from Franklin Roosevelt's day. Everyone says that Roosevelt did this and that, why don't I?"

Changed Positives. Kennedy has always been a man of positive ideas -- but some of the positives have changed. During the 1960 campaign, he effectively used the charge that U.S. prestige had plummeted during Dwight Eisenhower's Administration. In fact, the U.S. had under Ike, and retains under Kennedy, a high reservoir of good will in the free world -- as Kennedy saw for himself in his triumphal trips to London, Paris and, more recently Latin America. During the presidential campaign, Kennedy also made much of the "missile gap" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; within a few weeks after he took office, the missile gap somehow seemed to disappear (although the President was publicly annoyed at Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for saying as much at a news briefing. Kennedy himself said: "In terms of total military strength, the U.S. would not trade places with any nation on earth."

As an amateur historian, Kennedy might have realized that no new President starts out with a blank book to be filled with fresh-ink policies. The reach of current history is such that any President's program becomes a continuing part of national policy; that policy may be altered, but it can rarely be fully reversed. When Kennedy first came to the White House, he resented his inheritance, constantly referred to problems "not of our own making." But now those old problems tend to become "our problems," and the fact that the world is in trouble seems to Kennedy less Dwight Eisenhower's fault than he once suspected. At a recent meeting of the National Security Council, Kennedy opened a folder filled with briefs of U.S. problems. "Now, let's see," he said. "Did we inherit these, or are these our own?" Now, Kennedy can even joke to friends: "I had plenty of problems when I came in. But wait until the fellow who follows me sees what he will inherit."

Key to Power. Behind such subtle, sometimes facetiously stated, changes of attitude lies the central story of a U.S. President coming of age. Personality is a key to the use of presidential power, and John Kennedy in 1961 passed through three distinct phases of presidential personality. First, there was the cocksure new man in office. Then, after the disastrous, U.S.- backed invasion of Cuba (in White House circles, B.C. still means Before Cuba), came disillusionment. Finally, in the year's last months, came a return of confidence -- but of a wiser, more mature kind that had been tempered by the bitter lessons of experience.

Kennedy's inaugural address, delivered under a brilliant sun after a night of wild snowstorm, rang with eloquence and the hope born of confidence. "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it."

Man of Destiny. Such was Kennedy's performance during the inauguration ceremonies that the late Sam Rayburn was moved to remark: "He's a man of destiny." Poet Robert Frost, then 86, obviously thought so, too, and his proud reading of one of his poems at the inaugural set a tone of expectation. After a few weeks in the Presidency, Kennedy told a friend: "This is a damned good job." He was fascinated by the perquisites of his office and his sudden access to the deepest secrets of government. He explored the White House, poked his head into offices, asked secretaries how they were getting along. He propped up pictures of his wife and children in office wall niches, while Jackie rummaged through the cellar and attic, charmed with the treasures she found there and already determined to make the White House into a "museum of our country's heritage."

The Kennedy "style" came like a hurricane. For a while, the problems of the world seemed less important than what parties the Kennedys went to, what hairdo Jackie wore. Seldom, perhaps never, has any President had such thorough exposure in so short a time. At one point, Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's special counsel, reminded the president of Kennedy's old campaign line: that he was tired of getting up every morning and reading what Khrushchev and Castro were doing; instead, he wanted to read what the President of the U.S. was doing. Replied Kennedy: "That's so, and I've been hearing some criticism about it. People are saying that they are tired of getting up every morning and reading what Kennedy is doing. They want to read what Khrushchev and Castro are doing."

First Realization. On the home front realization came quickly to Jack Kennedy that not everything was going to come up roses. The 87th Congress had convened with lopsided Democratic majorities -- but those majorities were deceptive, particularly in the House of Representatives where conservative Democrats (mostly from the South) and Republicans saw Kennedy's squeaky win over Dick Nixon as less than a national mandate. The first major fight in Congress was over the Kennedy Administration's all-out effort to liberalize the House Rules Committee. The resolution carried by a scant five votes -- and right then and there President Kennedy, a veteran vote counter, concluded that his domestic programs were in for trouble.

He was absolutely right. During the year, in 66 messages to Capitol Hill, the President made 355 specific legislative requests. Of those, the Congress approved 172. In general, the Congress gave the President almost everything he wanted in the field of national security. After desperate fights, it approved Kennedy Administration requests for the biggest housing bill in history, an increased minimum wage and new federal highway financing. But such pet Kennedy programs as aid to education and medical care for the elderly never even came to House votes. And in one of the bitterest blows of all President Kennedy got for his vital foreign aid a half-loaf that did not meet his urgent demands for long-term borrowing authority.

Naive Request. In foreign affairs, understanding of the difficulties came more slowly to the President. At the outset Kennedy naively conveyed a request for a six-month moratorium on Communist troublemaking while the new Administration got its house in order. In response, Communist guerrillas began gobbling even more hungrily at faraway Laos. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko came to the White House to sound out the new President. In the Rose Garden, Kennedy sternly warned Gromyko of the danger of pushing the U.S. too far in a situation where its prestige was at stake. Gromyko listened -- and the guerrillas kept advancing in Laos. As the situation worsened, Kennedy went on national TV at a press conference to declare that a Communist takeover in Laos would "quite obviously affect the security of the U.S."

The plain implication of Kennedy's statement was that the U.S. would send arms and, if necessary, troops to defend the security that had been equated with its own. But nothing could have been further from Kennedy's intention, and only a few days later State Department officials and White House aides began downgrading the importance of Laos. Kennedy himself said, in a qualification that counted Laos out: "We can only defend the freedom of those who are ready to defend themselves." Actually, the new President had been caught in a talk-tough bluff aimed, at best, at achieving a pallid, precarious truce in Laos.

But Laos did not diminish Jack Kennedy's self-confidence. Neither did the space flight of Russia's Yuri Gagarin. To that, Kennedy reacted in a manner characteristic of his first months in the White House. First he called in his space experts, demanded that they come up with answers about when, how and at what cost the U.S. could catch up with the U.S.S.R. in man-in-space prowess. "I don't care where you get the answers," said Kennedy. "If the janitor over there can tell us, ask him." Next Kennedy appeared before the Congress to deliver an unusual midyear State of the Union message. He asked for a $9 billion program to put a man on the moon by 1971, and he placed that request, in a manner smacking more of Hollywood and Vine than of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, close to the top of the U.S. cold war priority list.

Dark Night. Then there was Cuba. It was a tragedy, but if nothing else it served the function of a hickory stick in the presidential education of John Kennedy. Kennedy had inherited the unpleasant fact of Communist Fidel Castro's rule over an enclave within 90 miles of U.S. shores. He also inherited from Dwight Eisenhower a specific plan for the U.S. to back, with air cover and logistical support, an anti-Castro invasion of Cuba by Cubans. But Kennedy decreed that the U.S. should not provide some of the necessary ingredients to that plan -- such as air cover by U.S. planes. The result was disaster at the Bay of Pigs.

On the night when the Cuba failure became apparent, the scene at the White House was memorable. President Kennedy, doffing the white tie and tails he had worn to a legislative reception, returned to the Executive Wing while the unhappy news was pouring in. At 2:30 a.m., orders were given to the State Department's Latin American expert, Adolf Berle Jr., and White House Aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to fly to Miami to confer with anti-Castro Cuban invasion leaders. Black coffee was being rushed about. Berle (since eased out of his State Department office) stood around in an overcoat complaining of the cold. Schlesinger was haggard and unshaven. Finally, Berle and Schlesinger left, and so did most others of the White House coterie. Abruptly, President Kennedy walked out into the White House Rose Garden. For 45 minutes he stayed alone, thinking.

Cuba made the first dent in John Kennedy's self-confidence. When the invasion first began to go sour, the President called his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was making a speech in Williamsburg, Va., at the time. "Why don't you come back," said Jack, "and let's discuss it." Bobby flew back and, in the midst of crisis, his was the profile pictured against the late-burning White House lights. In Cuba's immediate aftermath, it was Bobby who moved into the White House, spearheaded an investigation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, became a moving spirit at National Security Council meetings.

At the moment of nadir in the Cuba disaster, a White House aide watched President Kennedy and said: "This is the first time Jack Kennedy ever lost anything." The fact of defeat was jolting, and the President showed it. In the weeks that followed, he seemed unsure of himself and willing to attempt almost anything that, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, might recoup the B.C. position. He even got himself involved in the ill- advised attempt to trade U.S. tractors off for captured Cuban rebels.

On to Vienna. But it is in the nature of Kennedy to strike when things seem worst. It was in that sense that after Cuba the President -- despite campaign criticism of summitry -- decided to go to Vienna to meet Nikita Khrushchev. He hoped, he said, to size up Khrushchev and to warn him against miscalculating U.S. determination in the cold war. He knew beforehand that Khrushchev was tough -- but only at Vienna did he discover how tough. "The difficulty of reaching accord was dramatized in those two days," he says today. There was no shouting or shoe banging, but the meeting was grim. At one point Kennedy noted a medal on Khrushchev's chest and asked what it was. When Khrushchev explained that it was for the Lenin Peace Prize, Kennedy coldly replied: "I hope you keep it."

Kennedy managed to wangle out of Khrushchev a paper agreement on the need for an "effective cease-fire" in Laos and for a neutral and independent Laos (Communist guerrillas nonetheless continued to violate the cease-fire), but the two got nowhere on other matters. Then Kennedy insisted on a last, unscheduled session with Khrushchev. "We're not going on time," he snapped to his staff. "I'm not going to leave until I know more." He found out more. At that final session Khrushchev growled that his decision to sign a peace treaty with East Germany by the end of December was "firm" and "irrevocable." "If that is true," replied Kennedy, "it is going to be a cold winter."

High over the Atlantic Ocean, flying back to the U.S. the next night, John Kennedy sat in his shorts, surrounded by his key aides. He was dead tired; his eyes were red and watery; he throbbed with the ache of a back injury that the nation did not yet know about but that had forced him to endure agonies on his European trip. Several times he stared down at his feet, shook his head and muttered how unbending Khrushchev had been. He hugged his bare legs and wondered what would come next.

Aides in the White House agree that August and September were the most critical months so far in the personal and political life of John Kennedy. The first thing that Kennedy did when he got back to the White House was to call for an estimate of the number of Americans who might die in an atomic war; it was 70 million. Kennedy and those close to him felt that war was a very real possibility. The President became moody, withdrawn, often fell into deep thought in the midst of festive occasions with family and friends. He sat up late in the White House and talked about war. To one intimate associate he said: "It really doesn't matter as far as you and I are concerned. What really matters is all the children."

But at some point, in some way, the President passed through his period of personal crisis. He decided that words could be effective only when backed by the plain willingness to perform deeds. "We do not want to fight," he told the U.S., "but we have fought before. We cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force."

Kennedy had uttered such bold words before -- but this time he intended to support them with action. The Communist Wall in Berlin caught the U.S. by surprise, and President Kennedy had no ready response. "There's no reason why we should do everything," he said. But he did decide, even if it meant war, to insist upon the maintenance of three basic Allied rights in Berlin: 1) the presence of Allied forces, 2) access to Berlin, and 3) a free and viable city as part of West Germany.

Turning Point. It was to demonstrate that determination in the only language that Communism can understand that Kennedy ordered an armored U.S. troop convoy to travel the Autobahn from West Germany through East German territory to West Berlin. The journey made for some dramatic headlines, but its real significance was somehow diluted by the flood of international crises. Kennedy well recognized that if the convoy were stopped, the shooting might start. "Talking to Kennedy was like talking to a statue," recalls a White House aide. "There was the feeling that this mission could very well escalate into shooting before morning."

The battle group was to be sent along the Autobahn in serials of 60 trucks each. General Bruce Clarke, Commander in Chief, U.S. Army, Europe, set up headquarters in the woods about one-half mile from Helmstedt. He was in near-instant communication with the White House. President Kennedy had postponed a weekend trip to Cape Cod; his military aide, Army Major General Ted Clifton, was ordered to remain on duty all night in case of trouble, Kennedy himself stayed up until midnight, then turned in. When he arose at 8 a.m., he was told that the convoy's first group had passed safely through the gate into West Berlin.

Thus, the incident itself did not amount to much, but it was a turning point in the presidential year. For the first time Kennedy had backed up his urgent words with urgent action -- and was psychologically ready for more. Gone was the old feeling of complete cockiness. Gone too was that period of doubt -- which had been so devastating to a man who had never before known doubt.

From the beginning of his Administration, Kennedy had been concerned about establishing "credibility" with Khrushchev. But, in retrospect, it was not until after the Autobahn voyage that Khrushchev began to believe that the new U.S. President might really back up his brave words with daring deeds. Given that inch, Kennedy began to make mileage.

The U.S. continued building up its nuclear and conventional forces to strengthen its military might around the world. The Army stated raising its strength from eleven to a planned 16 combat divisions, got a badly needed infusion of modern equipment. Draft calls were increased, and some 156,000 reservists and National Guardsmen were called to active duty (some of them have been screaming ever since). Down to the smallest detail, Kennedy himself discussed ways in which the U.S. might combat Communist guerrillas in strategic areas of the earth. In a meeting with military leaders to decide which weapons ought to be sent to pro-Western forces in Southeast Asia, he personally called for specimens of several. He tried the new M- 14, then the new Armalite. Then he hefted the old, World War II carbine and said: "You know, I like the old carbine. You aren't going to see a guy 500 yards in the jungle."

Kennedy once again conferred with Gromyko in the White House to discuss East-West tensions, and this time the President made it clear that he was through with offering U.S. compromises in return for continuing Russian intransigence. Said Kennedy: "You have offered to trade us an apple for an orchard. We don't do that in this country." Before long, diplomatic pouches were bringing word back that Khrushchev now felt that his young American antagonist might be much more than a pup. In evidence Khrushchev amid belligerent yowlings, backed away from his year- end deadline about the settlement, forced or otherwise, of the Berlin question.

The Image. Slight and temporary though it may have been, the relaxation that Kennedy won in the tensions about Berlin gave him a chance to perfect and polish his image as a U.S. political leader. Part of that image was, and is, the youth, vigor and attractiveness of the Kennedy family. Few diplomats have scored more triumphs than Jacqueline Kennedy in her year as the nation's First Lady. She has charmed Britain's Macmillan, France's De Gaulle, Germany's Adenauer and, for that matter, Khrushchev himself (said Khrushchev of Jackie's gown: "It's beautiful!"). "Jackie wants to be as great a First Lady in her own right as Jack wants to be a great President," says a friend. Toward that end, Jackie has worked hard and effectively. She has done over the White House with unexceptionable taste. She has introduced into the White House, for the first time in years, good food, great music, Shakespeare, warmth and informality -- all along with a deep respect for American tradition. In so doing, she has managed to stay very much herself.

Jackie Kennedy refuses to be falsely humble. She wore her apricot dress and coat of silk and linen to speak to farmers in a Venezuelan barnyard. She declines to honor all the petty requests that pour into the White House, ignores most of the President's political rallies, turns down invitations from women's groups who are constantly nagging her for an appearance. She water-skis, rides, plays golf, and yet remains an attentive mother to her children.

"Who's Crying?" The Kennedys try to shield Daughter Caroline from too much publicity. But despite all her parents efforts, Caroline is a real Kennedy: she makes news. She came clutching her mother's shoes into a presidential press conference at Palm Beach. Carefully rehearsed, she was on hand to proffer a fresh rose to an enchanted Nehru at Newport. Once, Kennedy had to break off a TV filming to go and wipe Caroline's offstage tears ("Who's crying in this house?" he demanded). Again the President of the U.S., spending a weekend at Glen Ora, was heard to say impatiently: "Hurry up, Caroline. I want to use the phone."

Even beyond his immediate household circle, the President remains a family man. A brother, sisters and brothers-in-law have flocked to Washington in convenient concentration, all willing to help the President with his work and eager to help him relax after hours. Bobby is still Kennedy's right-hand man. Sargent Shriver Jr. -- Eunice Kennedy's husband -- is head of the Peace Corps. Stephen Smith -- Jean Kennedy's husband -- is special assistant to the head of the White House "Crisis Center." Actor Peter Lawford -- Pat Kennedy's husband -- helped pay off Democratic debts by co-producing an inaugural extravaganza, still shows up at Kennedy conclaves, sometimes with the Hollywood Rat Pack in tow. Until he suffered a stroke last month, Father Joe was in regular touch with the President, offering encouragement and loyalty. And it was Multimillionaire Joe who negotiated the movie contract for Robert Donovan's book on Kennedy's wartime days, PT 109. It came to a tidy $150,000 -- some $2,500 for each of the old PT crew members or their widows and $120,000 for Donovan.

The Treatment. Whether with his family, at a casual dinner with friends, or working among his trusted aides, Kennedy has one overwhelming interest that shapes all his actions: politics. By instinct and training, he is a political creature who works 25 hours a day at politics.

Kennedy's front-line political weapon is his own power of political persuasion. He courts Congressmen, inviting them to the White House for intimate social gatherings, calling them on the telephone to hash over old times on the Hill, remembering their birthdays with personal notes, carrying a tiny pad on which to jot down their political problems.

Where Harry Truman delighted in denouncing "special interest" groups, Kennedy tries to win them over. He places great emphasis on the power of the press, and no other U.S. President has granted so many private interviews to journalists of many levels. It goes without saying that organized labor is friendly to Democrat Kennedy, but the President has also gone all-out to relieve big business of its suspicions about his Administration. He has sent his economic advisers all over the country to preach that big business is a respected Administration partner, slipped such business leaders as U.S. Steel Chairman Roger Blough into the White House for long, earnest chats.

Kennedy's persuasive personality has also been turned on foreign dignitaries. The President has received 30 chiefs of state and heads of government since his inauguration, sent most of them away grateful for the treatment they received and impressed by Kennedy's broad knowledge and willingness to listen to their problems. Among his Western Allies, Kennedy gets along splendidly with Britain's Harold Macmillan. Germany's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer recently left the White House declaring: "I've never left this house feeling better." Even France's difficult Charles de Gaulle trusts and respects Kennedy -- up to a point. >From De Gaulle aides after Kennedy's spring trip to Paris came word of a characteristic De Gaulle declaration. In his long lifetime, said De Gaulle, he had met only two real statesmen: Adenauer and Kennedy. But Adenauer was too old, he said, and Kennedy was too young.

Where persuasion fails, Kennedy is perfectly willing to use power -- in his own way. In the early days of his Administration, he realized that he had picked the wrong man for Under Secretary of State. Chester Bowles, who was supposed to be tending to administrative work in the State Department, was instead obsessed with big-think solutions to world problems; beyond that, Bowles committed the ultimate sin of disloyalty by letting it be known, after the fact, that he had been against the Cuba venture all along. Kennedy decided to get Bowles out. He invited Bowles down for a swim in the White House pool. Then the two had lunch while Kennedy explained that he had a new job, outside Washington, in mind for Bowles. Bowles not only refused to bite at Kennedy's bait, but went out and stirred up protests among his cultist liberal following. In the face of a fuss, Jack Kennedy backed away -- but anyone who knew him also knew that it would not be for long. Last November, when nobody was looking, he shifted Bowles into a high-sounding but peripheral job as a presidential adviser, tossed in nearly a dozen other White House and State Department switches for good measure -- and managed it all with hardly a murmur of complaint from anyone.

Crab Grass & Berets. In the White House, Kennedy is still a man in near-perpetual motion, interested in everything that goes on about him and casual enough to take a hand in anything that interests him. Amid his other duties, he had time to notice crab grass on the White House lawn and order it removed, and to order the Army's Special Forces to put back on the green berets that had earlier been banned ("They need something to make them distinctive"). When he wanted a haircut a few weeks ago after a hard day of work, he simply had his secretary summon a barber to his White House office. There, the barber neatly spread a white cloth in front of the presidential desk, lifted a chair onto the cloth and began snipping away. The President of the U.S. tilted back his chair, picked up his afternoon paper, and smiled happily. "Now," he said, "I'm going to read Doris Fleeson."



 

 



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