Thursday, October 26, 2017

Considerable attention will be focused today on the release of Kennedy assassination documents.  For some, this will be an opportunity to promote or debunk views on the tragic event despite evidence which is likely to be inconclusive.

It also is an opportunity to reflect on the Kennedy administration, its accomplishments, potential and legacy.  Although lasting only 1,036 days, many aspects of that period inform us about the use of the presidency to inspire a nation and, indeed, a world.  The ability to balance firmness with moderation at the time of great international tension; the promotion of the arts; idealism, tempered with realism, as evidenced by the Peace Corps; welcoming differing political opinions without abandoning principle—these are some of the characteristics of that time.

I’ve tried to capture some of that in my forthcoming book, “Dinner in Camelot,” where the president brought to the White House the nation’s leading scientists, writers and scholars and to honor them for their achievements and provide encouragement to young people to follow them.  Dr. Linus Pauling picketed Kennedy outside the White House before the dinner, changed clothes and then went inside the White House for dinner; Kennedy welcomed him cordially.

I met John Kennedy fifty-seven years ago this Saturday.  It was a watershed moment for me.  It was a magical time for many, with the promise of a better life and better world despite the backdrop of the Cold War.  Our greatest presidents were those who encouraged such optimism.

Wit, charm and grace are terms frequently used to describe those years.  Not everyone would agree, of course, with the policies of that time, but there was a public dignity attached to the office.  While as a historian, I welcome new information about the Kennedy assassination, I also believe that the Kennedy presidency is instructive.

Photo is of a Kennedy press conference, January 24, 1962.  Credit:  Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs.  John F. Kennedy  Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; public domain.

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