Two Inspirational Public Servants

As I mentioned in my post on patriotism last week, I recently reread McCullough’s book about John Adams. I found Adams to be inspirational in his vision for America, his sacrifice and hard work, and his unwavering integrity. His entire career was dedicated to public service and to working for our country’s independence. It was not easy and he suffered through many challenges and self-doubts. He never shied away from speaking his mind. He had conflicts with many leaders throughout his career, including Thomas Jefferson, but he was also quick to make peace. In the last several years of their lives, he and Jefferson were friends and corresponded with each other regularly. It’s truly amazing that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years after they signed The Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was born and lived most of his life in the Boston area (in Braintree/Quincy several miles south of the city.) I thought it would be a good book to read before our trip to have fresh facts on my mind while in Boston. There is so much wonderful history in Boston regarding the founding of our country with sites along the Freedom Trail as well as the monuments and trails in Concord and Lexington showing where the first shots were fired on British soldiers, starting the war for independence.

While we saw and appreciated all these sites, the weekend seemed to become more about another great President, John F. Kennedy. I thought I already knew a lot about JFK but came away with more knowledge, insight, respect and awe of him.

Years ago I worked at the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. During that time, I was lucky to have met many of the Kennedys including Jackie, Caroline, Teddy, and JFK, Jr. I even have a picture of JFK, Jr. and I sitting beside each other at an IOP luncheon! Also, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is located on the same peninsula as the University of Massachusetts/Boston campus where I finished my undergraduate degree and so I toured the Library several times. Subsequently, I was fairly confident I knew most public things about JFK. Boy, was I wrong.

Due to my having worked at the IOP, I was able to reserve the Kennedy Suite for us to stay in on this visit. The Suite is made up of the dorm rooms Kennedy lived in his last year at Harvard. The Suite has been updated since I worked at the IOP with new hardwood floors, fresh paint, updated bathroom and kitchenette, and more framed pictures, books about and by JFK, and other related paraphernalia.

Reading through some of the books, I learned that JFK was quite an academic. He wasn’t just a pretty boy who slid into politics. He was well read, a deep-thinker, and a good writer. During his senior year at Harvard he wrote a thesis in response to Churchill’s book entitled While England Slept. Churchill wrote this book when he was a former member of the House of Commons and prior to being Prime Minister of England. Essentially, the book is a collection of speeches he gave during 1932-38 proclaiming that England should do more to prepare for war. A couple years later, Kennedy wrote a thesis that was a critique and rebuttal of Churchill’s book. Kennedy’s book, Why England Slept, is an account of of England’s unpreparedness for war and the tragic events of the 1930’s that led to WWII. Kennedy agreed that England was unprepared for war but differed with Churchill on the reasons for their unpreparedness. An impressive book written by a 23 year old undergraduate student.

It is widely known that President Kennedy experienced chronic back pain which was thought to have stemmed from his military service in WWII when his patrol torpedo was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. In the 1950’s he had spinal surgery to fuse two discs and apparently nearly died. During his time of recovery, he wrote the book, Profiles in Courage. In this book he writes about eight public figures who displayed astounding integrity in the face of overwhelming opposition. I was familiar with this book, although never read it, because when I worked at the IOP, we sometimes had recipients of the Profiles in Courage Awards as guests in the forum. I was happy to see this book in the Suite and to see that the first person profiled was John Quincy Adams. I thought I would quickly read through the book but it was much denser and more academic than I expected and I didn’t get very far.

My understanding is that JFK wrote other books as well but I am not as familiar with them. In reading other things in the Suite that were written about JFK, I was struck by several things: how well-respected he was by other academics and leaders; his love for, and knowledge of, history; his depth of insight on situations; his ability to synthesize information; and how quickly he thought on his feet.

Unlike John Adams who lived a long full life and died at the age of 90, John F. Kennedy died at the young age of 46. Each man had numerous obstacles and hardships they endured in their lifetimes. Each also had intelligence, compassion, inner strength, and envisioned a better world. Both spent their lives working towards that better world. Truly inspirational!

*Note on the Profile in Courage Award I mention above: This award was created in 1989 by members of the Kennedy family. To learn more about the award and its winners please go to:

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