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DAVID: Can you give me some advice on
a question of workplace manners? What should you do when you feel really
angry with someone at work?
LETITIA: Good manners stem from self-discipline. I tell people who
get really lost in a fit of rage to go outdoors and pound a wall. Take lots
of deep breaths. Stay outside for at least fifteen minutes. Then come back
in and apologize. Go into the person's office! Don't use your bloody computer
to send e-mail.
DAVID: Confront the source head-on?
LETITIA: Face to face. Being the first one to apologize never fails.
DAVID: But these days, we lionize unapologetic arrogance Donald
Trump, for example. Look how quickly "You're fired!" caught on.
LETITIA: There are several examples of pretty appalling celebrity
behavior. I can't stand the way celebrities treat their weddings inviting
other celebrities just to garner media coverage!
DAVID: Did you grow up in a family where manners were considered important?
LETITIA: Well, we didn't think of it as manners it was just
the way we were expected to act. Our parents had high standards, and we
were punished if we didn't meet them. There was a leather razor strap for
my brothers, which my father would only brandish at me.
DAVID: That kind of punishment would land you in court these days.
LETITIA: There's no question about it! I also had a Sacred Heart
Convent education the strictest of the strict.
DAVID: Sister Mary of the Impaled Heart?
LETITIA: Precisely. [laughs] But I'm so glad they were tough with
me, because I would have been a mess if it hadn't been for them. I was far
too ebullient as a teenager. But I didn't break the major rules just
the ones I knew I could get away with.
DAVID: You lived in Washington, DC, in the early 1930s.
LETITIA: Yes, my father became a congressman in 1931. My first visit
to the White House was when Herbert Hoover was President.
DAVID: Have you always been a Democrat?
LETITIA: No. I was born and raised a Republican, but I quickly became
an ardent Democrat when I worked as Social Secretary for the Kennedy White
House. But that job is not a political one. It was my responsibility to
make both the President and the White House look good. I just can't stand
the scandals that have surrounded recent presidents, like President Clinton.
DAVID: That was really an unprecedented attack, wasn't it?
LETITIA: Well, respect for the presidency diminished after Nixon
even with the White House staff. But during the Kennedy era, the press
were still very respectful. They loved both of the Kennedys and did
everything they could to keep the lid on anything detrimental.
DAVID: The media is now so salacious I can't imagine such self-restraint
nowadays. During the Kennedy administration, you held two jobs simultaneously,
White House Social Secretary and Chief of Staff to Jacqueline Kennedy. Was
Jackie a demanding boss?
LETITIA: She was demanding of herself, and she also expected her
staff to perform. As her Chief of Staff, my major contribution was to gather
as much information as possible on visiting ambassadors and heads of state.
I had to learn the protocol that was expected in their countries. It was
a well-run administration. The Kennedys wanted everything to be beautiful
and just right. And Jackie had such style.
DAVID: She was an accomplished hostess even before she moved to the White
LETITIA: As a Bouvier, she was raised in that tradition. She always
planned the menu, but deferred to me for the entertainment.
DAVID: As Social Secretary, one of your other responsibilities at the
White House was to help coordinate state dinners. Which was the most memorable?
LETITIA: We gave a lavish state dinner at Mount Vernon. It was the
first time that George Washington's home had ever been opened for such an
event. We had to ship all of the refrigerators and stoves down from Washington.
It was in honor of the President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. Pakistan had recently
become our first open ally in the Middle East. The Secretary of State, Dean
Rusk, told us we had to really "do a number" on him, and give him a fantastic
DAVID: What constitutes an "international incident" involving protocol,
and what does the White House Social Secretary do in such a situation?
LETITIA: An international incident occurs when either the host or
the honored guest is humiliated, and it's reported in their local press.
Sometimes you just have to let those situations play themselves out. Sometimes
incredible apologies are required. John Kennedy was very aware of what the
press would do to him if his wife's frivolities got into the newspapers.
DAVID: Such as?
LETITIA: After the dinner at Mount Vernon, Jackie was given a fantastic
Arabian stallion as a gift from Ayub Khan. However, the president and his
immediate family are not allowed to accept gifts of such great value, so
we had to tell the Pakistani ambassador that we couldn't possibly accept
it. But horses meant more to Jackie than people. She got word to President
Khan that she would love to receive the horse, so the Air Force flew it
into the country in a cargo plane. After it arrived, the Army kept calling,
asking what they should do with it. So I went to the President.
DAVID: How did he react?
LETITIA: He blew up. He said, "This is absolutely terrible. We cannot
do this. Find out how much that horse is worth I'm going to pay the
full import duty to bring it into the United States." So I got on the phone
and asked the White House operator to connect me to the Ambassador of Pakistan.
She misunderstood and gave me the Ambassador of Afghanistan, a country which
was, at the time, the great enemy of Pakistan.
DAVID: Oh no!
LETITIA: I knew him because we played tennis together, but I didn't
recognize his voice. When we first got on the phone, he didn't reveal whom
he was. He was enjoying it! I kept saying, "Oh, it's so embarrassing, Mr.
Ambassador, we have to find out how much that beautiful horse cost! It's
so humiliating!" He said, "Miss Baldrige, that horse is a nag and is worth
nothing. Zero!" And then he started to laugh.
DAVID: He was enjoying himself!
LETITIA: Then the Ambassador said, "Letitia, don't worry about it.
I won't tell anybody if you won't." After much bickering and bargaining,
the Pakistani Ambassador and I decided to post the duty at ten thousand
dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. But, in the end, the horse
entered the country illegally, and the story was never told.
DAVID: Is etiquette still emphasized at the White House today?
LETITIA: Behavior at the White House has become appalling. If you're
invited to a White House dinner, be there on time. Not five minutes early,
and certainly not fifteen minutes late. Nowadays, guests show up whenever
they wish. Some people don't even RSVP.
DAVID: To state dinners? That's unbelievable.
LETITIA: Many guests don't even bother to dress appropriately. The
men look as though they haven't changed their shirts for the occasion. And
many women come dressed informally and immodestly. You can't wear a cocktail
dress to a state dinner! Jane Fonda did that.
DAVID: Do you have any other advice to those attending?
LETITIA: Yes. Never swap the place cards, even if you think that
no one will notice. Also, don't ever complain about where you are seated,
or you'll never be invited back. One night we hosted a party so big that
it overflowed into the Blue Room. Jackie told me that she would play host
in the Blue Room so that all of the guests would feel included. Two guests
arrived very late and demanded to be seated as close to Jackie as possible,
assuming she was in the main dining room. So I went ahead and put them in
the main dining room at the table furthest from Jackie.
DAVID: Today's political atmosphere is highly polarized. Do fierce opponents
of the current administration accept invitations to White House dinners?
LETITIA: Absolutely. The Republicans and the Democrats shout at each
other on the House and Senate floors, but when they run into each other
outside of work, most of them still shake hands, smile, and exchange jokes.
DAVID: Years ago Patrick Daniel Moynihan represented the ideal in the
LETITIA: He was wonderful! He was a Democrat, but he was so beloved
by the Republicans, because he was such a gentleman. He had the most beautiful
manners. And he made a lot of jokes. You know, a sense of humor is basic
to all of this. Humor softens any harshness in what you try to do.
DAVID: What do you say to people who believe that manners and etiquette
are forms of elitism?
LETITIA: I ask them if saying hello with a friendly face is elitist.
I ask them if thanking the waiter, instead of ignoring him, is elitist.
DAVID: I think people associate etiquette and manners with high society.
But charity events today are merely opportunities for socialites to network
and buy new couture.
LETITIA: Today's socialites hire people to do their job for them.
They don't know what they're doing. They are lacking in knowledge and real
DAVID: Laura Bush was in New York for Fashion Week in February...
LETITIA: That never would have happened thirty years ago. Back then,
people looked down on the fashion industry. Designers were thought of as
journeymen, whereas today, the top designers at the famous fashion houses
are the number-one guests on many dinner lists. Today's A-list says a lot
about our society. We celebrate those with the most money, flash, and dash.
DAVID: Your latest book, New Manners For New Times is filled with personal
reminisces. You not only talk about the inspiration you derived from the
great leaders of World War II, but also about growing up in wartime America,
and your sincere admiration for your father.
LETITIA: My father was a hero in World War I and World War II. The
men who left their civilian jobs to become military leaders were the real