President Obama is spending much of Wednesday honoring John F. Kennedy. In the morning, he’s presenting Medal of Freedom awards, whose modern version was established by JFK. Afterward, he and first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and ex-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. That is sure to be an emotional appearance.
The Kennedy grave site is one of the most striking spots in the national capital region. It sits on a long slope in Arlington National Cemetery below the Custis-Lee Mansion, which dates from 1802 and was first owned by an adopted son of George Washington.
Kennedy’s burial there was far from foreordained. In the immediate aftermath of his assassination, many assumed he would be buried in Brookline, Mass., which as one JFK loyalist put it was the “Hyde Park of the Kennedys,” referring to the New York hamlet that was the ancestral homeland of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Only two presidents were buried in Washington, D.C.: William Howard Taft at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River, and Woodrow Wilson at the National Cathedral in the upper northwest quadrant of the city.
Kennedy’s sisters assumed that Brookline, or perhaps Boston Common, was where JFK would be interred. So did his brother Robert and the so-called Boston mafia, his longest-serving aides.
She was gently steered in this direction by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a forceful personality who felt the president should be buried on federal land, where he was accessible to the American people.
Early on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 23, the day after the assassination, McNamara was in his office at the Pentagon perusing alternative Arlington sites. As a steady rain began, he left to tour the cemetery with its superintendent. They looked at three possible locations: an area named Dewey Circle, a plot near a memorial to the USS Maine, and the hill below the Lee Mansion.
McNamara much preferred the Lee Mansion site. He then rounded up Robert F. Kennedy and JFK’s sisters and brought them to see the slope, as the rain got heavier, according to William Manchester’s “Death of a President,” the classic book on that terrible November week.
The family contingent was converted. At 2 p.m., the widow left to see the potential grave site.
“Jacqueline Kennedy’s first visit to Arlington was like the opening of the final act of ‘Our Town,’ ” Mr. Manchester wrote. “The steady rain was glacial, numbing.”
Her entourage was silent. A mass of soldiers held umbrellas over Mrs. Kennedy in an effort to keep her dry. She looked over the hill for about 15 minutes.
Later she said, “We went out and walked to that hill, and of course you knew that was where it should be.”