Monday, October 27, 2008

Stay-cation -- John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

This morning found me driving down Route 93 to the other side of Boston to visit the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. It seems to me almost sacrilegious that I am a 30-something born and raised Bostonian yet have never visited this before. I've been on the other side of the parking lot several times to do ancestry research at the State Archive, but have never had the time to devote to the library. Today I would.

It is is one of those clear, crisp, almost beach-weather sunny fall days. The blue sky reflected itself on the water and as I got out of my car on the point where the library is, I could smell the salt-fresh air and feel the cool breeze right off the water. The building itself was designed by IM Pei (of Louvre Pyramid fame) and was finished in 1979. It is made of blinding white marble, black piping and glass. Against the deep blue of the sky and the cold indigo ocean behind it, it makes a stunning picture.

Proof that you have paid admission is a sticker that is a replica of a Kennedy campaign pin, the kind that my grandmother had in her jewelry box (albeit for Ike) and the one that has no clasp on the back and could poke you at will. The exhibitions lead the visitor through the basement level, which is set up to showcase the various stages of Kennedy's life, starting with the 1960 Democratic Convention.

If I may digress here, I found it staggering that his acceptance speech at that Convention, if you replace "Catholic" with "African-American" and "Communists" with "Al-Qaeda", would seem perfectly reasonable today if spoken by Barack Obama. This is particularly striking when Kennedy spoke of it being a "new and dangerous risk" to entrust the country to someone of his faith, that Americans must "exercise fair and free judgment" and not waste their vote for him or against him based on his religion. That that was a time for change, not a time to curse the darkness of previous administrations, but to light a candle there. Since I was not yet born in '60, I had no idea of the parallels and I have to wonder if those who remember it, are at all amazed by the similarities.

But back to the exhibits...I saw campaign paraphernalia, tapes of the debate with Nixon, tapes of the Inauguration and speech. There were many letters, photographs, place settings and gifts which dealt with how State dinners were organized and arranged by the First Lady. Jaquelyn Kennedy had most of the control over seating arrangements and guests list, the latter including notables such as John Steinbeck, WH Auden, Pearl Buck, Robert Frost. It seemed that the President and his wife had access to whomever they wanted for entertainment and as guests, and it also appeared that guests were grateful for the time they spent with the first family.

Of course there is a replica of the Oval Office as well as of Bobby Kennedy's office when he served as Attorney General. Smaller exhibits deal with mental retardation, Ireland, the Peace Corps and sailing, all of which are and were dear to the Kennedy family.

While the rest of the basement level is bright and white and well lit, the narrow corridor that deals with the assassination of the president is jet black with a half-dozen black and white televisions spooling news footage of the assassination, Walter Kronkite's poignant declaration that the President was killed, and footage from the funeral. From this hallway, the visitor moves on the legacy of Kennedy and his family.

Most interesting for me, perhaps, because I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was an actual piece of the wall which the Kennedy family asked for from the German government. I was struck by the size and excellent condition of the piece of wall, which hearkens back to Kennedy's famous "I am a Berliner" speech in Berlin in June of 1963.

Upon leaving the museum, I walked around the back to take in the stunning view of the skyline of Boston from this side of Dorchester Bay. It is indeed impressive and indicative of the type of water-scene evocative of the Kennedys' own Cape Cod, which leads me to believe that that must be why this location was chosen.

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