JFK Presidential Library, Boston
There’s a moment on a tour of the JFK Presidential Library that brings on tears. Around me, as I stood there, some people sobbed. I could even feel that slight sting in the eyes myself.
The moment comes right at the end of the exhibits in the room dedicated to that fateful day in Dallas.
Unlike the other rooms before, there were no glass display cabinets or typed explanations. It was just a room painted completely black, a date on the wall – ‘November 2, 1963’ – and television screens with that infamous broadcast of Walter Cronkite informing a nation they had lost a president.
The sadness comes not from the act of the assassination itself, which is now a part of history rather than a pain in the national consciousness, but from the realisation of how great and inspirational a president can be.
At a time in American politics when a man who promised hope and change has failed to unite a fractured country, it stirs the heart to find out more about the man who made a pledge of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” and worked until his dying day to see that dream realised.
The tribute to his life, The JFK Presidential Library and Museum, looks out to the harbour of his hometown of Boston.
The building’s striking architecture is impressive as you approach it but it’s inside the white walls and large latticed glass pavilion that visitors are truly impressed.
The exhibits follow the story of John F Kennedy chronologically from his days as a student, through his military service, his time as a congressman and senator, to the presidential campaign and his achievements in office.
To be fair, to see these stories of history is to believe JFK was flawless, which he obviously wasn’t. In some ways it reminded me of the propaganda museums I saw in North Korea.
Still, it’s designed as a tribute, not an impartial analysis, and there’s no doubt that he made many bold leaps forward on behalf of the USA.
JFK was the president who made mental illness and children with disabilities national priorities – not because focus groups told him to or because he could see a wave of public sentiment which he needed to ride.
No, it was because he believed passionately it was the right thing to do and the country would be better for it.
His fight for the rights of black Americans and his support for the campaign to abolish segregation made him unpopular with many people but, once again, it was because he dreamt of a country that was greater than a collective of selfish intolerance.
John F Kennedy today
I write all of this not just because I was inspired by the museum (which was probably the highlight of my trip to Boston), but because study of a president like JFK has never been more important than in America today.
There were parallels made between him and Barack Obama years ago and there are clear similarities in their language.
In his acceptance of the nomination, the young senator from Massachusetts said, “the old people without medical care – the families without a decent home – the parents of children without adequate food or schools – they all know that it’s time for a change”.
Ah, yes, “change”. I knew we’d heard that somewhere before.
It’s what you do with the power invested that maketh the man, though, not the rhetoric with which you got it. At a time when protests are growing at cities across the US, real leadership is needed.
President Obama may have it within him and one day his library may tell the tale of how he led America out of an economic and social depression.
But in the meantime, the young people occupying Wall Street could do worse than to get inspiration from JFK (who was probably no older than them when he entered public service) when he said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
And as far as Obama goes, there is some inspiration for him as well. The final quote you see at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum is written on the wall at the exit of the exhibits.
It has become, in about a dozen words, as much of a shrine for the 35th president as a phrase can be.
It simply reads: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on”.
You can visit the official website of the JFK Presidential Library here.