JFK: Man vs. Myth

Written by Brad

As a lover of history, I was excited when Donna and I started talking about traveling to Boston, the birthplace of our nation. I had one abbreviated trip to Boston over 20 years ago and looked forward to learning and seeing more of the city and its historical significance.

Our trip did not disappoint. We walked a portion of the Freedom Trail, including Paul Revere Mall and the Old North Church. We visited Faneuil Hall, Quincy and the birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and Lexington and Concord, where the shot heard round the world was fired. Needless to say, my desire to learn more about the rich history of the area was sated.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the events of the 1700’s and the birth of our country, my greatest education came from more recent history. We were fortunate enough, through contacts of Donna’s from her time working at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics, to stay in John F. Kennedy’s old dorm room in Winthrop House. The suite Harvard dedicated in remembrance of the president is a museum unto itself and filled with books, either written by the former Harvard student or about JFK. Perusing the many volumes as best I could provided insight into the man, not the myth I had grown up with.

I was still in diapers when Kennedy was elected as the 35th President and far too young to remember anything about his presidency. Really, all I knew was he was young, handsome, charming, and our first Catholic President. A few other bits and pieces of information were known, and of course I knew of his 1963 assassination and the many theories revolving around that November day in Dallas.

What became known most prominently was what a scholar he was. I had no idea he had written Why England Slept while a Harvard senior. The book was published from a thesis he wrote assessing England’s failures to prevent and prepare for WWII. A heady topic for any undergraduate. Visiting the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, which should be a must for anyone traveling to Boston, offered more insight into Kennedy’s astonishing life. I came away enriched and invigorated to learn more, not just from what I saw there but from childhood memories as well.

I grew up in rural Mifflin County, PA, the heart of Pennsylvania’s “T”. Very conservative, very Republican, then and now and my parents fit that mold. Yet my mother adored JFK. She always spoke highly of him, and I can recall numerous instances of her voice quaking when talking about his assassination and the iconic image of John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s coffin. As a child there were not many books in our house but included among the collection were books on PT 109 and the full Warren Commission Report. There are even small busts of JFK and Jackie still on the same bookshelf. Needless to say, party affiliation had no bearing on how she felt about JFK.

Since returning from Boston I wanted to ask her about her affinity for Kennedy. Visiting this past weekend I broached the subject, but unfortunately, she did not go beyond the aura of Kennedy and “Camelot”, only offering that he was handsome and so well-spoken. She was enthralled with him though, enough so that she admitted she would stop everything to watch any press conferences or speeches that were televised, which could not have been easy with toddlers in the house.

It seems the myth of the man far outweighs the substance he brought to office of the presidency, but make no mistake, he was a scholar and academic, and while his charm and wit may be the lasting memory many have, his legacy should not be so narrow. One can only wonder how he would have shaped history, and where our country would be now, had his life not been tragically ended so early.

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
President John F. Kennedy, American University Commencement Address, June 10, 1963

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