Celebrating JFK’s 100th Birthday

By Doug Wallack

Quoted in the December 1963 Life article in which she famously coined the “Camelot” epithet for her late husband’s presidency, Jacqueline Kennedy says, “Once, the more I read of history, the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was.” She goes on to outline a vision of a young John F. Kennedy for whom history was a great repository of heroes and role models—a catalyst for his own idealism.

In retrospect, it is tempting to flip her line and say that, in fact, history made Jack what he is. That is, despite his relatively modest accomplishments during his brief tenure as president, and despite the subsequent revelations of philandering that threatened to tarnish his legacy, history has smiled on JFK. Viewing his presidency through the lens of the tumultuous years that followed, the American public continues to name Kennedy as one of the best U.S. presidents to have held the office.

Now, as researchers and historians continue to nuance and complicate historical narratives, it is difficult to view the 35th president with same unqualified admiration he once garnered, but his charismatic leadership, his ambition, and the sense that he was guiding the country in a new direction have remained lasting inspiration for the public life of many individuals and institutions.

In 2010, for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s election, Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library held an exhibit of documents from both his political career and from his very brief stint as a Princeton undergrad. (Kennedy was a member of Princeton’s Class of 1939 for less than a semester, at which point he withdrew due to illness and transferred to Harvard.) Alongside a Christmas card Kennedy and his roommates circulated among their friends, and political correspondences he maintained later in life, the exhibition also housed his application essay to the university. If Kennedy, who would later pen the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume of short biographies Profiles in Courage, showed any hint of his future writerly prowess, it was in his extreme terseness of his prose. Here is the text of his essay in full: My desire to come to Princeton is prompted by a number of reasons. I feel that it can give me a better background and training than any other university, and can give me a true liberal education. Ever since I entered school, I have had the ambition to enter Princeton, and I sincerely hope I can reach my goal. Then too, I feel the environment of Princeton is second to none, and cannot but help having a good effect on me. To be a “Princeton Man” is indeed an enviable distinction.

Perhaps not incidentally, Kennedy’s application essay to Harvard was nearly identical. Princeton University administrators, though, evidently didn’t harbor many hard feelings about his transfer. Reunion Hall, the site of Kennedy’s freshman residence, was demolished in 1965, but the Class of 1939 Dormitory houses a bronze plaque framed by bricks rescued from his Reunion Hall room—a poignant commemoration of his time on campus.

CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS

May 29 of this year marked the centennial of JFK’s birthday, and institutions across the nation are hosting events and installations to commemorate the occasion. Last summer, Congress passed an act establishing the John F. Kennedy Centennial Commision — a body intended to organize events related to the Kennedy centennial. Upon the legislation’s passage, Sen. John McCain remarked, “There are few leaders throughout history whose legacy of service and iconic leadership have inspired the country the way President John F. Kennedy has. I’m proud Congress has passed our legislation to create this commission, which will not only help Americans celebrate JFK’s remarkable life, but ensure his legacy lives on for generations to come.”

Beyond congressional legislation, The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has taken the helm in organizing Kennedy-related events, coordinating a year-long nationwide series of events, activities, and exhibitions among organizations including the U.S. Navy, the Peace Corps, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the United States Postal Service, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, White House Historical Association, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, and John F. Kennedy Airport. Numerous organizations in Massachusetts, where the Kennedy family has deep roots, are also taking part in the celebrations.

The Kennedy Library itself, located in Boston, is host to one of the series’s flagship installations: an exhibit entitled “JFK 100—Milestones & Mementos,” which will run, open to the public, through May 2018. A total of 100 objects, documents, and ephemera from throughout JFK’s life will be on display, including some of JFK’s sunglasses and ties; a flag from PT 109, the patrol torpedo boat he commanded during World War II; a scrapbook he compiled as a high school student; and a suitcase he used on the campaign trail in 1960. Stacey Bredhoff, the curator of the exhibition, writes that the collection “[humanizes] an elusive historical figure, while bringing his timeless message of hope to a world that still yearns to hear it.” Bredhoff contends that his leadership in the wake of WWII galvanized a fragile American public, bringing out its most dearly held commitment to public service. “He gave voice to the nation’s noblest aspirations,” she writes.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society, which, is hosting a photo exhibit entitled “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times,” running through early January 2018. “Certainly the presidency of John F. Kennedy… continues to loom large in the American consciousness,” she says. “The issues Americans confronted at the time may seem remote to us today. Still, many of the questions raised—above all, equal rights and Americans’ obligations on foreign shores—are still pondered in our time.”

The “American Visionary” collection contains a wealth of photos, some well-known, others previously unpublished, spanning both the high drama of Kennedy’s public life—and through that, the questions facing the American public to which Dr. Mirrer alludes—as well as the warmth of his family life. The collection features the work of some of the greatest photojournalists of the late 1940s through the early 1960s, including photos by Ed Clark, Lisl Steiner, and Ralph Crane.

For now—and rightly so—in the hearts and minds of so many Americans, Camelot lives on.