President John F. Kennedy continues to inspire, 100 years after his birth

My photo of President John F. Kennedy’s beloved sailing boat, Victura, with his eponymous museum to the left and Boston’s harbour and city skyline in the background.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is holding a special exhibition called “JFK 100 – Milestones and Mementos” to mark the centennial of the great man’s birth.

The museum itself is worth making a beeline for, if you’re ever near Boston USA (and if you’re unlikely to go there anytime soon I have inserted some links to the museum’s digital archive below). In a stunning building, located (purposely to reflect JFK’s love of the sea) on a breathtakingly beautiful shoreline site overlooking Boston harbour and the sea beyond, the museum presents the visitor with a feast of insight, photographs, exhibits and information about JFK, his presidency and his family. I’d allow the best part of a day to absorb it all, if I were you. There is a superb introductory film, a film on the Cuban crisis and countless videos playing on a loop with contemporaneous TV footage. There are a mountain of original artefacts. The whole thing is quite mind boggling but very inspirational, if a little panglossian (for example, although his health issues are mentioned severally, I could find no mention of Addison’s disease).

The one exhibit which sticks in my mind is the coconut which JFK engraved with a “help” message for a native Pacific islander to transport back to the US Navy when he and his surviving shipmates were stranded on a remote Pacific island after the Japanese rammed their patrol boat in the Second World War.

The “JFK 100” exhibition itself is worth devoting an hour or two to. What they have done is produce 100 quite remarkable bits and pieces from their archive. These range from JFK’s ties and sunglasses to some previously forgotten interview footage when he was a Senator and some interesting original documents, including original speech texts (which Kennedy spoke from). They show last minute edits from Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. Indeed, one little gem I picked up is that when Kennedy got up to give his famous inaugural address, the text he read from said:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country will do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

But, as he spoke the script at the inauguration, he made a last-second “on the hoof” edit and changed it to what he said, which was:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

As Michael Caine didn’t say: “Not a lot of people know that”.

All together one leaves the museum feeling deeply inspired. The key takeaway is how Kennedy articulated the struggle for “liberty”. He said:

A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.

He was referring to “liberty” or “freedom”. Looking back, this seems a little clichéd from today’s perspective. But seen from the point of view of the early 1960s, with the threat of global communism and/or anhiliation very much alive, it was, and is, a profoundly inspiring articulation.

For me, John F. Kennedy’s greatest achievement was working through the Cuban Missile crisis without a nuclear war kicking off. He over-ruled his rather hawkish military advisers. That strength derived, in part no doubt, from his amazing war service. He swam three and a half miles amidst dangerous, current washed waters, towing an injured colleague via the cord of his fellow’s lifebelt in his teeth. Now that takes some doing! It was that heroism, presumably, which allowed Kennedy to be a superb Cammnder-in-chief during arguably the greatest man-made crisis which the world has ever faced.

Kennedy was a keen historian. I think we could learn a great deal from the Cuban crisis in respect of the current North Korean situation.

Links

As promised, here is a link to the magnificent JFK Museum and Library digital archive. There is a sumptuous series of collections which you can browse including most of JFK’s presidential papers, his private papers, the Kennedy family’s private photographs and archive material from broadcasters and films.

As a sample, here is the CBS archive recording of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech from 1960:


And here is that inspiring inaugural address:



And here he is in sobre mood at a live news conference in 1961:




Here are documents related to Kennedy’s inaugural speech. If you scroll down virtually to the bottom you can see the originally released text of the speech and the part where the text said “Ask not what your country will do for you” whereas Kennedy changed that as he was speaking to “Ask not what your country can do for you”:

Here below is the manually edited “reading copy” of that part of the speech:

Here’s a little slide show of various items in the “JFK 100” exhibition. Click on the arrows to move the images, hover your mouse or finger over the photo for a caption and click on “More images” at the bottom of the box to see even more such images on the Getty Images website:


Embed from Getty Images

And finally, here are a few more of my photos of the museum itself. Scroll down to view:

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is a councillor and one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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27 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Sep '17 - 12:25pm

    Why s late to the party , it was his birthday in May ?!

    Paul, I welcome this in every way, as a Liberal and Democrat more keen on JFK than any other leader in the tradition of progressive achievement.

    I subscribe to the newsletter of and am keen on the work of the Kennedy Library .If I were in the area I would attend there regularly, there is a wealth of terrific activity, but some is worth following online.

    The more I see him in speeches and the more I read of him in view of his very brief presidency, I like and respect him.

    His speech to the Liberal Party of New York,also an organisation I subscribe to and recommend, available on You Tube to listen to, if you you put the words JFK Liberal , in, is one of the best on why to be a Liberal.

    There are too many attempts to trash him.

    Starting with his heroism in the second world war, through his Pulitzer prize for his book, to his two and three quarter years of effort in government , his legacy . like the man, is good.

    And with Martin Luther King the most moving speech maker in the media era.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Sep '17 - 5:58pm

    Writing in The Times of 25 September 2017 Philip Collins reviews the ten best speeches ever. Times2 pages 4-7, John Kennedy struck out all uses of the word “I” in the text of his inaugural address on 20 January 1961. The list is
    1 Winston Churchill: the occasion lived up to his standard of rhetoric
    2 Martin Luther King: advisers wanted him to omit the dream bit (!)
    3 Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg address 19 Nov 1863 never used the word slavery once, but referred back to the founding fathers
    4 Elizabeth 1 Tilbury 9 Aug 1588 cannot be entirely sure this speech was ever delivered
    5 Nehru 14 August 1947 “at the stroke of the midnight hour”
    6 Nelson Mandela 20 April 1964 Prepared to die for an ideal, delivered to the judge of the apartheid regime.
    7 JFK as above. Nothing about his death, how or why, body parts all over his wife.
    8Emmeline Pankhurst 24 March 1908 Excluded from the vote while subject to the laws of parliament (still true of 16-17 year olds) Collins ignores enfranchisement of most women in 1917 for the 1918 election.
    9 William Wilberforce 12May 1789 3 hours long, some MPs were slave-owners
    10 Barack Obama 7 Nov 2012 ” I have never been more hopeful about America”

  • Phil Beesley 25th Sep '17 - 5:59pm

    Perhaps some liberals see Kennedy as a fraud.

  • I am contractually obliged to mention LBJ on any post about JFK. Though even I have to admit his rhetoric doesn’t match Kennedy. Just the most liberal progressive president since the war 🙂

    But I don’t get Phil’s comment about Kennedy either!

  • I am contractually obliged to mention LBJ on any post about JFK. Though even I have to admit his oratory doesn’t match Kennedy – though his best speeches do I think read better than Kennedy’s. And he was the most liberal progressive president since the war 🙂

    But I don’t get Phil’s comment about Kennedy either!

    @RichardUnderhill – that’s a rather scant list. No Hola Camp (Powell), No RFK on the assassination of King, or the Ripples of Hope speech, Otto Wels opposing the enabling act etc.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Sep '17 - 10:26pm

    I realised that when I read it fully with the links, I regularly visit there , online , you have got there before me in person , I am glad it was as good as one might think , as I look forward to it myself in further US trips.

    Paul , I like your liking for things on the other side of the pond.

  • Steve Griffiths 26th Sep '17 - 8:46am

    And we should not forget Bobby Kennedy, another whose oratory was on a par with his brother. His speech made from a flat back truck in Indianapolis announcing the death of Martin Luther King, should in my view be added to the list of greatest speeches.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoKzCff8Zbs

    He would have been a wonderful US President.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Sep ’17 – 5:59pm……….Perhaps some liberals see Kennedy as a fraud. …..

    Most now remember him as the man who was cut down in the flower of his youth before he had a chance to fulfill his potential….

    I lived through his presidency and it was flawed..Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Start of US troops fighting in Vietnam, etc….

    As for using the Cuban Missile crisis as an example for N. Korea?????? Anyone looking at it will remember just how close we got to WW3…His refusal to allow America to seem weak in publicly admitting the removal of their missile from Turkey in exchange for Russia’s Cuban missiles (a trade-off that could have avoided the naval face off) almost ‘backfired’….
    What is also forgotten is that he was not a leader in the Civil Rights actions…His lack of involvement was criticised by activists and Kennedy was only drawn into it by events.. He actually opposed the August 1963 ‘March on Washington’ that is remembered for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech….It was only such ongoing peaceful pressure that forced Congress and Kennedy to pass meaningful civil rights legislation….

    I won’t detail his personal life..

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Sep '17 - 12:36pm

    Expats

    I can understand your post but not agree.

    JFK was the anchor in much of what you describe , every one of those situations was controversy personified, had he been knee jerk or even better, more committed to one particular stance soon, those situations would not have panned out as we might have wanted.

    Like FDR, another Liberal, he was a pragmatist. The needs of the moment ,the hour , the very difficult and often dangerous things happening then, were full of players involved who were extreme and pushing in varying directions.

    Cuban missile crisis, he was the steady one, surrounded by hawks, he heard the doves too, and saw it through.

    Civil rights, try being obviously for big change in your first months of your presidency when being almost blackmailed by J. Edgar Hoover, and those so against the movement and its aims. He listened to wiser voices and led thus.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Sep '17 - 1:04pm

    BBC4 has a series about the Vietnam war, starting with the OSS (now CIA) involvement during the Roosevelt presidency against Japan. Ho Chi Min as an ally of the USA!
    JFK was a Congressman, then a Senator, then President and was well informed at all three stages. He did not support a coup against South Vietnamese President Diem but allowed it to happen. Diem +1 were murdered after surrendering into the external security of an armoured car. Diem’s wife was abroad and escaped. Much more to come.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Sep ’17 – 12:36pm
    Expats…….Civil rights, try being obviously for big change in your first months of your presidency when being almost blackmailed by J. Edgar Hoover, and those so against the movement and its aims. He listened to wiser voices and led thus…

    August 1963 was hardly in his first few months…Look at contemporary articles on his civil rights record instead of post November 1963 reflections..His actions were far more concerned with keeping Southern politicians on-side than ‘rocking the boat’…

  • Mick Taylor 26th Sep '17 - 5:04pm

    Today, Kennedy wouldn’t even get the Democratic nomination. His record of misogyny and his attitude to and his actions with women would confine him to the sidewalk not the White House.
    And though I hate to agree with Hywell, it was LBJ who got through the Kennedy programme, even though he didn’t always agree with it as a Southern Democrat.

  • Mick Taylor,

    “His record of misogyny and his attitude to and his actions with women would confine him to the sidewalk not the White House.” Think for a minute – Who is in the White House now?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 26th Sep '17 - 8:38pm

    Paul,

    Thanks for posting this. I visited the Kennedy Library around this time last year and enjoyed it very much, particularly the recreated White House corridors. I expect you went, as I did, to the Edward Kennedy Center, next door, which is more aimed at educating school children about the Senate but still interesting.

    Stood in Ted Kennedy’s office, shipped from Washington and reconstructed at the Center there I gave the curator my best take on Brexit.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Sep '17 - 11:17pm

    Mick, read Joe, you are seeing it from your perspective.

    In an era when Trump is president , Charlie Sheen making millions as a tv star , Mike Tyson , a post prison career , JFK would be judged as a naughty boy , no worse, and was no worse , compared to those mentioned !

    He was not a mysognist , and in an era of violence towards women, and philandering everywhere, was liked and loved by the opposite sex, some crime ! His so called behaviour was the norm in his family , circle and profession, his drugs for addisons disease , regular hormone changing injections give him an excuse the womanising sexist and dislikeable LBJ did not have.

  • Phil Beesley 27th Sep '17 - 2:01pm

    @Paul Walter: “Do please expand Phil.”

    Apologies for the slow response. I wore nappies when JFK was President so I have seen a variety of representations of the Kennedy era without being aware at the time.

    I just don’t see a glorious liberal leader. Kennedy was a man created in the 1930s and 1940s who became a machine politician. His young adult education was interrupted by war and ill health, and his father controlled his earlier upbringing. Had he not been assassinated, social movements in the USA would have delivered change and regressive movements would have sent the USA to war. No change, really.

  • Phil Beesley 27th Sep '17 - 3:49pm

    @Paul Walter: “that’s a very jaundiced view but I see nothing in your criticism which suggests that Kennedy was a “fraud”.”

    Throughout the 1930s, Kennedy suffered from chronic ailments. He was a sick man. Somehow, he became a fit man. Like his dad, he was a fraud.

  • Phil Beesley 27th Sep '17 - 4:55pm

    @Paul Walter: “Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt a fraud too?”

    I don’t know. I know that he was disabled, and that people disguised how he worked in the world.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Sep '17 - 5:03pm

    Paul

    You and I and those who are prepared to read about and appreciate someone warts and all, are being Liberal.

    Those who write off a man who did mostly good , even if having had a long and strong innings, should not do it.

    Doing so regarding or rather disregarding a remarkable individual horribly cut down while young, should not do it and should think that approach far more lacking in any liberalism than the president they dismiss.

    JFK was a man more than he was anything, and there even one that despite his many flaws, I like.

    As a leader he was a true Liberal Democrat, measured but radical and progressive after deliberation.

    See his speech online regarding his attempts to bring in more radical and progressive change, put in JFK healthcare , and , together with his speech, JFK Liberal, there is no doubt he was a real and true believer in a mainstream progressive Liberalism.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Sep ’17 – 5:03pm…..Those who write off a man who did mostly good , even if having had a long and strong innings, should not do it….

    Those who dismiss the views of those who actually lived through events are hardly liberal…

    If nothing else ‘Vietnam’ ( 20 years, over a million dead including 60,000 US..and heaven only knows how many wounded and lives destroyed) should disqualify JFK from being deemed a ‘great’ president…’

  • Having basked in the love lavished on me by former colleagues…..

    LBJ was a misogynistic, manipulative bully who was also an electoral cheat and had questionable finances and an equally dubious approach to women. He would have been destroyed in about 2 hours given modern politics. However he wasn’t a Southern Democrat – at least of the Bilbo/Russell/Thurmond type – as an EG refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto. It’s a little hard to pick through what might have been his actual views from what he told people to get their votes (eg telling a number of southern democrats that it was Ok to vote for the 57 Civil Rights legislation as no jury would convict a white man.

    LBJ frequently spoke of his time teaching poor mexican students when younger and his family had a record of opposition to the KKK.

    JFK’s Presidency was of course tragically cut short. But he had 2 1/2 years as President. Johnson had 5 – and the legislative record is hugely different.

  • A university lecturer once summed it up to me by saying ‘JFK was a nice man who didn’t achieve much. LBJ was a complete bastard who delivered civil rights.’ Simplistic perhaps but I think there’s a germ of truth there. The lesson being: sometimes it takes a bastard to achieve good things.
    Anyone interested in LBJ should see the film ‘All the Way’, which you can download now on amazon or google. Bryan Cranston is terrific as the man himself, and the film is very good on how he balanced his relationship with the southern conservatives on one hand and Martin Luther King on the other to get the civil rights legislation through.

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