End of Innocence

The JFK Presidential Library and Museum

The JFK Presidential Library and Museum

   Although I have a colonoscopy every, er, ten years as recommended (in case my doctor may be reading this) the sense of dread that decennial event conjures is a most familiar one. It matches exactly, for instance, the same dread I feel about going to a museum. In fact, the prep for a colonoscopy may actually be somewhat less dreadful, in that there is considerably more sitting done than you get to do at a typical museum.

   And so it was with that familiar trepidation that I approached a trip to Boston's John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Among my favorite presidents, JFK is unique, as he's the one who inspired an eleven-year-old to a lifelong belief in government as a force for good. Yes, he's the reason I'm a latte liberal today.

My first interest in politics: the 1960 election, age 11

My first interest in politics: the 1960 election, age 11

   Still, this is a museum, and I entered with my usual calculation of a countdown in minutes of when it would be acceptable to leave. My calculation includes a visual scan for seating availability, as well as the number of film exhibits that might be included in the tour. (Film exhibits generally provide theater seating - a big plus in my book.) Many museums offer audio-guides, which only serve to shame you into seeing every exhibit the museum has to offer, instead of allowing you to traverse the place as if you're on roller blades.

Kennedy inaugural address. I memorized it for high school forensics

Kennedy inaugural address. I memorized it for high school forensics

   Needless to say, I was transfixed the moment I entered. First, there were no audio guides available. Instead, here were photos and objects and film clips that transported me back to my youth and the first true inspiration toward a purpose in life. The displays of Kennedy's presidential campaign took me back to those four days of the Democratic convention, which I watched transfixed, lying on my parents' living room floor late into a school night. When Wyoming put Kennedy over the top in the balloting for the nomination, I cheered as if it were Saturday morning, and Roy Rogers had just showed up to save the day.

   I had a recording of Kennedy's inaugural address and memorized it for my high school forensic team. To this day, I can still recall from memory the opening paragraphs of that speech. And I can still recall, of course, sitting in General Science class as a ninth grader, when the announcements came that Kennedy had been shot and shortly thereafter, that he had died. I saw one classmate bury his face in his hands in sorrow, while another gave a silent cheer. It was my first direct awareness that good Americans would be sharing the country with complete jerks.

   Needless to say, this was the first museum I've visited, where I was in no hurry to leave. Even Carol was surprised when, well after the traditional 90-minute time allotment for museum visits, she said she'd like to see more and I answered, "Me too!"

November 1963 to November 2008 seems like an eternity now.

November 1963 to November 2008 seems like an eternity now.

   The decade of the Sixties have been the most formative for me. It began with a faith good things were possible, and ended with that same faith restored with the moon landing. In between there were three assassinations and a country tearing itself apart over race, all of which destroyed any faith that good could be sustained. At age 70, I still find myself struggling to maintain that faith in spite of the mounting evidence that the jerks of the country have it by the throat now.

   A crowd had gathered where Kennedy's inaugural address was being replayed on film. Several applauded at the moment he uttered the eternal "Ask not..." phrase. It was a redemptive moment to see those words continue to soar in hearts even today.

   If faith is a candle, then maybe we have to accept that it will occasionally flicker when the wind blows ill. Most days now, It feels a lot like November 22, 1963 all over again, with November 2008 still so far off...

   The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is located on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Boston. I recommend it. It can feel like going to Lourdes.