The Public Controversy over the Kennedy Memorabilia Project
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The Troublesome Issues Raised by the JFK Memorabilia Controversy Evelyn Lincoln served as John F. Kennedy’s personal secretary in the White House. She is credited with saving from extinction various notes, drafts, doodles, and miscellaneous Kennedy memorabilia that otherwise would not have been preserved.2 Following JFK’s death, the Kennedy Library, Senator Ted Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy Jr. directly asked Lincoln to donate her collected memorabilia to the library.3 She responded by donating some of her collection. At her death in 1995, she bequeathed other memorabilia to another collector, Robert L. White. Three years later, White attempted to auction some of his Kennedy memorabilia received from Lincoln as well as other items he had collected over the past thirty or so years.4 The Kennedys, the Kennedy Library , and the National Archives for the arst time vigorously challenged Lincoln’s ownership of her memorabilia collection, publicly asserting that she had breached the public trust by taking an overwhelming number of items for herself.5 A lead editorial in the New York Times on 16 March 1998 delineated the conbicting interests of the public’s right to preserve these historic materials and White’s claim of private ownership: These are not things personal to the Kennedys. They are personal to the nation. Today, by law, such doodlings by Bill Clinton would be deaned as Presidential records, government property. But the Kennedy papers, along with his briefcase and writing desk—face the auction block, and an afterlife in someone’s den. The National Archives is now hot to get them. The Archives has no money to buy such things. Perhaps it should. But instead, on Friday, it threatened to sue, on the basis of the ambiguous deed of gifts. Robert White has already given up some things. Perhaps , after a weekend’s thought, he and his wife will give up more of the nation’s heritage. The actions by the Kennedy Library, the Kennedy Library Foundation, and the Kennedy family (including the interactions among the three) raise the perplexing issue of the extent of a conbict between the legitimate goals of a presidential library and the effective control of that library by the former president’s family on issues of importance to it.6 The conbict between the apparent interests of the former president’s family and the presidential library itself became evident in the events surrounding the controversy over Lincoln’s JFK memorabilia collection. The Kennedy Library, backed by the National Archives and 225 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ The Public Controversy over the Kennedy Memorabilia Project Robert M. Adler ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ “Whatever I do or say,” President Kennedy said . . . “Mrs. Lincoln will be sweet and unsurprised. If I had said just now, ‘Mrs. Lincoln, I have cut off Jackie’s head, would you please send over a box?’ she still would have replied, ‘That’s wonderful , Mr. President, I’ll send it right away. . . . Did you get your nap?’”1 its lawyers, essentially claimed that Lincoln had stolen the JFK memorabilia she claimed as her own. Yet after the controversy subsided in 1998, documents obtained from the library as the result of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed that: (1) library ofacials and the Kennedy family knew and accepted that Lincoln legitimately owned the collection; (2) rather than challenging Lincoln’s ownership during her lifetime, library ofacials and the Kennedy family concentrated on attempting to convince her to donate her collection to the library; and (3) any conceivable claim against the collection was tenuous as a result of the ambiguities in the initial deed of gift and of the anecdotal and speculative nature of the evidence against Lincoln.7 After Lincoln’s death in 1995, library ofacials quickly realized that she had not left the library the “treasures” they had anticipated. Nonetheless, the library took no action to assert a claim against her remaining memorabilia collection, even though the institution ’s ofacials were fully aware that she had possessed documents of exceptional historical importance as well as unique items of memorabilia (such as the briefcase that JFK carried on his last trip to Dallas as well as some of its contents). Not until the November 1997 public announcement of the Guernsey’s auction did the library threaten legal action. If the Kennedy Library and the National Archives really believed in the strength of their claims, why wait thirty-ave years before asserting them? Because of pressure asserted by the Kennedy family as a result of the fact that White, a stranger to...


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