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Arthur Schlesinger Tells of J.F.K. Remembered on a Sunny Autumn Saturday in Boston

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Two weeks ago, in a nostalgic reconvening of New Frontiersmen, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library opened in Boston. PEOPLE asked Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a former JFK Special Assistant now teaching at the City University of New York, for his special view of the occasion. His account:

It had been a bad week in Boston. During a high school game three weeks before, a black football player was shot and critically wounded. Now, for four successive days, tension had burst into episodes of violence. On Friday, October 19, a gang of white boys chased a young black couple across Boston Common, and the Roman Catholic cardinal pleaded tearfully for an end to racial assaults. “On the eve of the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy sorrowfully observed that morning, “I am reminded of another occasion of violence.”

So were we all—all of us who had worked with John F. Kennedy in Washington in another age and were now coming to Boston for the opening of his library. Sixteen years earlier, violence had abruptly ended a memorable time of hope and promise in American life. After Dallas, it almost seemed that the republic had started to come apart. There had followed years of bitterness, hysteria, more violence, more assassinations, until the ’60s came to a shabby end, and an exhausted country tried to pick up the pieces in the listless ’70s.

The library itself had been sadly buffeted in the time of trouble. John F. Kennedy had always supposed that it would be built at Harvard, his beloved alma mater, and had even inspected possible Harvard sites in the last year of his life. He had hoped that the library would become a center where scholars, students, politicians and public servants could educate each other. He had contemplated all this, it must be added, with his customary irony. When we were preparing an exchange of letters with Harvard providing for the transfer of university land to the library at the request of “the President,” he suggested the term be made more specific, adding wryly, “Who can tell who will be President a year from now?” That was on October 2, 1963.

Plans for the library went forward after Dallas. But Cambridge residents were unhappy at the prospect of a tourist attraction in their midst. The times gave strident minorities power, and they drove the library out of Cambridge. The Boston branch of the University of Massachusetts offered Columbia Point, a landfill promontory jutting out into Dorchester Bay. John Kennedy had loved the sea as much as he loved Harvard; if Harvard were unavailable, the sea awaited.

I.M. Pei, the great architect, set to work on the design. Now, at last, the building was finished—a nine-story structure of dazzling white concrete, composed in simple geometric forms reminiscent almost of a New England lighthouse, coming to a lustrous climax in a high glass pavilion looking out across Boston Harbor. The building brilliantly solved the mundane problems of placing under a single roof an archive for scholars, an educational center for students and a museum capable of receiving thousands of tourists. Most of all, the structure, in its gleaming, soaring modernity and its vista of distant horizons, was a triumphant evocation of the spirit of the Kennedy years.

And so the survivors of the New Frontier came to Boston in mid-October. Senator Kennedy had invited over 100 of the visitors to speak at New England high schools about the challenge of public service. The oldest of the speakers was W. Averell Harriman. Born in 1891, during the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison, he appeared before students, many of whom had been born after the Presidency of John Kennedy three-quarters of a century later. One young man asked the eminent statesman what could be done to fight cynicism in government. “Get involved yourselves,” the old crocodile roared, “and clean it up.” He received a standing ovation.

It was hard to accept the fact that a whole new generation was coming of age for whom John Kennedy was as remote and historical a figure as, say, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had been for us. At Brookline High School someone asked me why JFK had captured the national imagination and whether his achievements justified his “image.” A reasonable question, and I tried to explain why the Kennedy years had seemed so exhilarating a departure in our politics—not only for the missile crisis and the test-ban treaty and the battle for racial justice but for the sense he gave of the defects in American society, the discrepancies between our performance and our ideals, and the conviction he communicated that we could do better.

The shadow of Boston’s violence fell over the commemoration. Charles Evers, the black mayor of Fayette, Miss., whose brother Medgar had died for civil rights in 1963, spoke at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School. “Social change doesn’t come easy,” he said. “It comes with a lot of struggle…Freedom don’t come free.” He added: “The greatest message this country needs is love for their fellow man. And we ain’t got that. We’ve got hatred and bigotry. Don’t hate. It’s a terrible thing, to hate.”

Many others spoke—Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon, John Kenneth Galbraith, Theodore Sorensen, Pierre Salinger, George McGovern, Sargent Shriver, Theodore H. White, McGeorge Bundy, Richard Goodwin, Birch Bayh, Art Buchwald. That evening we all gathered for dinner at the library. Everyone, except for the indestructible Averell Harriman, looked a little older; everyone, except for a surprisingly svelte Pierre Salinger, looked a little more portly; everyone looked a little grayer. The evening had something of the aspect of a class reunion. But it was not all nostalgia. Senator Kennedy was present that night, and President Carter was arriving on the morrow; this political gathering hummed with speculation about politics to come. I said to someone, “This will probably be the last time all these people will gather together.” He said, with the 1981 inauguration in mind, “I hope there will be one more time.”

Saturday, dedication day, was luminous Indian summer. By mid-morning, thousands of people filled chairs beside the library. Small boats sailed across the sparkling harbor. President and Mrs. Carter arrived to general applause. The President shook hands with three Kennedy sisters, then walked across the stage and, to her evident dismay, kissed Jacqueline Onassis. She stiffened and exchanged glances with her children. In the North gentlemen do not kiss ladies on such brief acquaintance.

Stephen Smith, a Kennedy brother-in-law and president of the Library Corporation, opened the meeting. Steve Smith was the unsung hero of the occasion. His soft-spoken way of getting people to do things had kept the library project moving ahead during the long years of vicissitude and frustration. His next job, everyone knew, would be to make his brother-in-law President of the United States.

Smith called on Caroline Kennedy, now a modest and lovely young woman, and she in turn called on her brother, John, to read Stephen Spender’s “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great”:

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Then Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest son of Robert Kennedy, spoke. Young Joe Kennedy was on his own. No elder had reviewed his speech. It was a fiery flashback to his father’s passionate concern for the poor and powerless in American life. “The sooner we face down the vested interests,” he said, “the better it will be for plain, ordinary, far too vulnerable Americans.” Jacqueline Onassis turned slightly and winked at Speaker Tip O’Neill. “Until we make that kind of business the people’s business,” said Joe Kennedy, “then we have a long way to go, both ethically and politically.” Some people thought his remarks badly out of place. Others thought they brought the day out of ceremony into reality. I thought his father would have been proud of him.

John Kennedy gave the key to the library to the President, and then Jimmy Carter spoke. He has rarely spoken better. There was some uneasiness when Carter went on about kneeling to pray when he heard the news from Dallas and about having cried more than he had cried since the death of his father; this was excessive for reticent New England. With a felicity reminiscent of Kennedy himself, Carter lightly turned a quotation from a JFK press conference against Ted Kennedy. The crowd loved it. And his words about John Kennedy were graceful and generous. Even the ranks of Kennedys could scarce forebear to cheer.

The senator spoke with deep feeling about his brother. “The spark still glows,” he concluded. “The journey never ends. The dream shall never die.” Stephen Smith asked the audience to pause for passages from John Kennedy’s speeches. The unforgettable voice echoed across Columbia Point. The crowd, enveloped in reverie, sat in silence under the misty October sun. When the orchestra played America the Beautiful, the stately old song had never seemed more poignant.

Quietly the crowd broke up, drifting into the library or walking on the promenade along the serene sea. The past had found its monument. The stormy future lay ahead. But one can believe that Edward Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, whatever the disagreement and recrimination to come, will look back on that gentle morning in the shadow of I.M. Pei’s library as a cherished moment of harmonious purpose. And that weekend, at least, there was no racial violence in Boston.