Jun 24, 2010
|A heartbreaking reminder that intelligence, wit and a kind face once occupied the White House
Today it was back to Boston by MBTA train, a transportation system that after a short learning curve is very efficient and easy to use. Our destination; the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Getting to the train station required a 15 mile drive from our campground, but we were behind the commute and traffic on Highway 3 was light. Parking was plentiful and we managed to squeeze our motorhome into one $7 space. We boarded the Red Train to the JFK/UMASS station, where we got off and took a free shuttle bus to the Library which is on the University of Massachusetts campus.
The campus faces Boston Harbor from Dorchester Bay, and it’s striking red brick buildings are visible from all over the bay. The J.F.K. Library, by contrast, is a black and white building that also shows prominently from a distance, and faces the water to honor Kennedy’s love of the sea.
The scale of the building dwarfs it's visitors. The architecture is starkly modern, with clean lines and a lot of empty space. Still the lobby is not cold. Three black and white photos of the President decorate the wall behind the reception desk. They provide all the warmth that is necessary. Written over the pictures is this statement. “This Library is dedicated to the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, and to all who through the art of politics seek a new and better world.”
A visit starts with a 20 minute movie about Kennedy family history, and events leading up to the 1960 Democratic Nominating Convention held in Los Angeles. I remember that convention well. I had just been discharged from active duty in the Marine Corps and I was living in Southern California 30 miles from where the convention was being held. I was 21 years old and looking forward to casting my first vote for a president. I watched the convention from beginning to end.
The library tour continues on the lower level where the rest of the exhibits are located. First stop is at a recreated nominating convention, where a video is playing Kennedy’s acceptance speech. The speech impresses me mightily now, and I wonder that it didn’t impress me more then. I’d had a belly full of Eisenhower and I certainly found Nixon repulsive, but Kennedy seemed young and inexperienced and I lamented the fact that it was him or ‘them’. I wished I had another choice.
With some misgivings I voted for Kennedy and the election was so close that if I or 120,000 people like me had changed our votes Nixon would have won. J.F.K.'s inaugural address convinced me I had made the right choice. Ironically two years later Nixon lost the governorship of California by three times as many votes as he had lost the presidential election.
In opposing Nixon, Kennedy who through the art of politics did seek a new and better world, was up against a candidate who represented the status quo, and who in Kennedy’s words had ‘taken a position on every side of every issue’. Kennedy was quick to point out that in a rapidly changing world ‘there is no status quo’ and to try and maintain one is a dangerous illusion. Just how dangerous is made clear as we walk through the museum’s exhibits.
Just 20 months after taking office Kennedy and the nation faced the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War - the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a Marine reservist watching other Marine reservists being recalled to active duty I also remember the Cuban Missile Crises well. The tension was unbearable, and the world held it’s breath as Russian ships steamed toward America’s naval blockade of Cuba. Would someone back down - or would the world be engulfed in a nuclear war? Those frightening moments are relived in one of the Library’s theaters, and the tension gripped us all over again.
Many facets of J.F.K.’s life and presidency are featured in the library’s ever changing exhibits. A good presentation gives life to his heroism in WWll, as captain of PT 109 in the Solomon Islands. Other highlights include his writing of Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, his creation of the Peace Corps, his launching of the ‘race to the moon’, his interest in mental retardation, his relationship with his brother Robert and his deeply felt convictions regarding Civil Rights.
The assassination is dealt with so lightly it almost seems trivialized. It’s easy to understand focusing on the positive aspects of Kennedy’s life and presidency, but to relegate an event as world shaking as his assassination to a few minutes of Walter Cronkite’s coverage is a serious error in this visitor’s opinion.
The visit ends with an uplifting exhibit on the Kennedy Legacy and on the Profiles in Courage Award. Each year the Kennedy Library Foundation selects a recipient who exemplifies political courage, as President Kennedy defined it in his book Profiles in Courage. It’s a fitting way to end the exhibits and it feels like something ‘Jack’ would have liked.
The day was a powerful reminder of how much we loved that family, and how much they did to breathe life and vitality into the politics of the day. From J.F.K.’s stirring “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall, to Jackie’s fluent Spanish in Mexico and South America, the Kennedy’s endeared themselves to our friends and even to some of our enemies. Normally tough and arrogant, French President Charles de Gaulle was visibly shaken at the funeral. We were shaken then too - and on days like this we still are.