Letitia Baldrige, social secretary for the first two years of the Kennedy White House, died last week, just a few days shy of the presidential election. Baldrige was the perhaps most famous person associated with the White House in the twentieth century, other than presidents and first ladies. She was social secretary for only two years -- leaving prior to John Kennedy’s assassination -- and yet left an indelible imprint on the way in which her successors managed White House social affairs.
Her example is an interesting one for philanthropists, because philanthropy and good manners comes from the same disposition to judge that one has enough time, money, or energy to spend some of it on others -- that there is enough to share.
Indeed, it’s hard to say whether certain actions are best characterized as small acts of philanthropy or displays of good manners: is letting the woman with a fussy toddler go ahead of you in the grocery check-out line a small philanthropy? Or good manners? Or both?
Just as both philanthropy and etiquette arise from the same disposition to spend some of one’s care on others, both are vulnerable to being corrupted in the same way: of being used to further ambition and vanity. Indeed, the very name etiquette hints at the problem: it comes from an Old French word for “ticket,” and etiquette can be adopted as a calculated means to gain admission -- a “ticket” -- into certain social circles. Using etiquette in service of ambition and vanity arises from the same moral failing as making ostentatious philanthropic gifts for praise and publicity rather than out of a sincere concern for one’s fellow man.
Philanthropy in service of vanity rather than sincere care for others is certainly common enough: university giving officers will report that it can be easier to get a philanthropist to give money for a building that will bear his or her name than to give money for urgently needed scholarships. And certainly etiquette in service of ambition is common enough as well.
Letitia Baldrige understood that the essence of etiquette is concern for others:
“There are major C.E.O.’s who do not know how to hold a knife and fork properly, but I don’t worry about that as much as the lack of kindness,” she told The New York Times in 1992. “There are two generations of people who have not learned how important it is to take time to say, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and how people must relate to one another.”
It’s this same concern for “how people must relate to one another” that motivates true good manners and true philanthropy; could a two-generation decline in good manners presage a decline in philanthropy -- or at least of sincerely motivated philanthropy?