The Kennedy Library: where Camelot lingers

To step into the John F. Kennedy Library is to step into that glorious era that never really was -- those Camelot years when technology promised the moon, when the rumblings of civil freedoms were heard in the land, and when the polls reported that 83 percent of the American people thought their President was doing a fine job.

Boston's newest historical treasure, only six months old, captures the charismatic elegance and soaring expectations associated with the man himself. To look out through the 115-foot smoked-glass pavilion, adorned only by a hanging American flag, onto a wide scope of sea and sky is to feel that those expectations are still, somehow, alive.

During the first five weeks after its opening, more than 100,000 visitors lined up to see that view and file past the Kennedy memorabilia extensively exibited on the ground floor -- more business than any new museum has ever received in so short of time. During this Boston Jubilee year the long lines promise to continue, especially on weekends and holidays, as a library tour makes a vibrant addition to any celebration of Boston's history.

The nine-story building, designed by I. M. Pei, is faced with chalk-white precast concrete and situated 3 1/2 miles south of downtown Boston at the edge of Dorchester Bay, on a sweeping vantage point from which the whole of the city's skyline can be seen. It is easily accessible by car via the city's Southeast Expressway or by subway (Red Line to Columbia stop) and shuttle bus.

When I approached it by car on a brilliant day last winter, the library's stark white geometric design looked especially vivid against the blue sea and sky. Its landscaping of Japanese black pines, willows, and Cape Cod dune grass blends harmoniously with the site.

Once inside, the visitor pays a 75-cent admission fee and heads for a theater showing a 30-minute orientation film on Kennedy's life. "Many of our visitors are actually too young to remember much about Kennedy, or else weren't even around during his lifetime," a museum official told me. "They need something like this as an introduction."

After the film, visitors head downstairs to the 18,000 square feet of exhibit space, with 700 photographs and 1,000 objects all pertaining to the late President's life. It is his life that is presented here and not his death -- only a simple wooden slab marks the date of his assassination. Throughout the exhibit are huge transparencies of poignant scenes: Caroline and John Jr. romping in the Oval Office while their father looks on, JFK taking a solitary midsummer stroll along the cape.

Above the objects on display are two timelines -- one following Kennedy's life and the other following world developments -- that put his life in context.

But the exibit starts well before Kennedy was born by first tracing the genealogy of his Irish immigrant ancestors, who arrived in Boston in the mid-19 th century.

From there, the exhibit displays mementos of his youth and childhood, his battered desk from prep school, a letter to his father making a good case for a raise in allowance (he was now a Scout and needed 20 cents more for the added expense), his report card from Harvard, the tattered flag from PT-109.

As Kennedy's life soon becomes political in nature, so does the exhibit. A 1946 poster presents a startlingly youthful candidate running for Congress under the prophetic slogan "The New Generation Offers a Leader." The exhibit notes that Kennedy was then "seeking to overcome his disadvantages of youth, religion, and lack of executive experience."

The exhibit then traces his six years in Congress and subsequent election to the Senate in 1952. From there, visitors linger over the 1960 cliffhanger presidential race, watching excerpts from the Kennedy-Nixon debate and the states lighting up on an electronic board that stimulates how the Electoral College votes were cast.

The presidential years are treated from a variety of angles: A televised press conference shows Kennedy bantering with reporters, manipulating their questions with ease; there are displays on the space program and the Peace Corps (a quotation from a volunteer reads: "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish, because nobody asked me to. Kennedy asked."); a special exhibit called "A Day in the Life of the President" traces a busy day that began at 7:15 a.m. and ended with a dinner at the British Embassy that kept him up until 2:45 a.m. There is also a display of his private collection of ship models , including one of an American whaler that was a gift from Nikita Khrushchev.

Although part of the exhibit delves into the Cuban missile crisis -- including some recently declassified correspondence between Kennedy and his military advisers -- for the most part it is of a President who could do no wrong. There is little mention of the increasing involvement of the United States in Vietnam, perhaps because the public did not yet see this as consequential. In fact, just a few days after the Bay of Pigs and the dispatch of troops into Southeast Asia, the timeline records that the polls declared the President had 83 percent of public approval.

Near the end of the exhibit, visitors come to what is perhaps its focal point -- a replica of Kennedy's desk from the Oval Office (the original is still there) and the objects that were on it when he left for Dallas. His famous rocker sits in front.

At the end, visitors file out from the rather dark, low-ceilinged exhibit area into the light-filled expansiveness of the glass pavilion. Through the front panes, the President's 26-foot sailboat, the Victura, rests on the lawn bordering the sea.

On the stark, white wall is a quotation from the 1961 Inaugural Address which summarizes the optimistic spirit the library captures so well:

"All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

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