Old glory

Today is the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, a centennial commemorated locally with a public radio series about Kennedy’s impact here in Massachusetts. It’s fitting, I think, that JFK’s centennial falls on Memorial Day. Kennedy served but didn’t die in war, but he did die in service to his country. Of war veterans it is often said that all gave some and some gave all, and the latter is true of Kennedy’s legacy of public service.

Pavilion with flag

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously urged, “but what you can do for your country.” Veterans know full well what they can do for their country, and they do (and did) it. Kennedy, too, knew what he could do for his country, exhorting and encouraging his fellow Americans through oratory and example, urging Americans to reach for the moon and beyond.

I sometimes worry that this ideal of public service–of putting one’s country before oneself–is fading away, at least among politicians. Our current president’s most memorable contributions to American oratory are the phrases “Build the wall” and “Lock her up,” and I doubt he has ever asked anything more than what profit he could make from his country.

Looking up

Last night, J and I watched a television documentary about Kennedy’s assassination, and I was struck by the spontaneous reaction of the assembled crowds in Dallas when Kennedy’s death was announced. Ordinary citizens stood in the streets, weeping, and loose throngs of strangers gathered around parked cars, listening in shock to radio reports. There were no partisan divides, no divisions on account of race, class, or gender. For one day in Dallas, everyone was united in grief, Kennedy becoming in an instance everyone’s president.

Kennedy wasn’t a perfect president, nor was he a perfect man: no man or president is. But JFK is still revered as an American icon a century after his birth for one simple reason. In an era when it seems that everyone is out for himself, Kennedy embodied the noble ideal of giving oneself entirely in service to one’s country.

JFK birthplace

This weekend my sister and I went to the house in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born. Officially known as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the three-story house at 83 Beals Street is maintained by the National Park Service, whose rangers lead walking tours through both the house and surrounding neighborhood.

Master bedroom. JFK was born in the bed near the window.

Joe and Rose Kennedy moved to Beals Street in 1914 when they were newlyweds, and they had four of their nine children during the six years they lived there. This being the era when doctors made house calls, John (known to his family as Jack) and his sisters Rosemary and Kathleen were born at home in the master bedroom. (The couple’s eldest son, Joe Junior, was born while the family was vacationing in Hull, Massachusetts.)

Bathroom, with Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s maiden initials on the towels

Joe and Rose Kennedy were well-to-do when they moved to Beals Street, their starter home having room for not one but two maids. But the house where Jack was born is far from palatial, with one small bathroom and only two bedrooms for a growing brood of kids, and in 1920 the growing family moved into a larger house a few blocks away.

Young JFK slept here

The Kennedy kids were born into privilege, but they never forgot their mother’s favorite Bible verse: to whom much is given, much is required. Joe and Rose Kennedy intentionally raised their children to be public servants, expecting them to be well-informed about politics and current events and to participate (even as youngsters) in the dinner table debates the family was known for.

Children's table set for John and Joe Junior

The house on Beals Street is frozen in time, with clocks set to 3:00 pm (the hour of Jack’s birth). In the dining room, a tiny table is set for Jack and his brother when they were toddlers, and the room that Rosemary and Kathleen would ultimately share is decorated as a guest room, as it was before they were born.

Sitting room with piano

After John F. Kennedy became President, the house where he was born, which was then under private ownership, was only occasionally visited by curious onlookers. After his assassination, however, Beals Street was thronged with mourners looking to make a kind of pilgrimage, as if visiting the site of Kennedy’s birth would somehow help them make sense of his untimely death.

Dining room set with Rose Kennedy's wedding china

In 1966, Rose Kennedy re-purchased the house with the intention of restoring it to its original appearance and donating the property to the National Park Service to serve as a memorial to her son. This weekend on our tour, my sister and I were joined by tourists from Colorado, New Mexico, and Japan, the allure of JFK still reaching far and wide.

Rose Kennedy's boudoir

Touring the house on Beals Street, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between JFK’s presidency and the current presidential campaign. Kennedy was an orator who was groomed from birth to be a public servant: I wonder what he’d make of the crass and crude rhetoric of this present campaign, or how he’d respond to a candidate who like him was born into wealth but shows no proclivity for service and sacrifice.

Historical marker for JFK birthplace

To whom much is given, much is required. Walking through the house where Jack Kennedy was born is sad because despite Rose Kennedy’s attempt to freeze a happy moment in time, we all know how the story ends. The house on Beals Street captures the happy promise of a young family with their lives ahead of them. Only later would the Kennedy family’s commitment to public service take an exacting toll.