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You don’t know Jack: My review of the JFK Presidential Library.

Last December, while on a research trip to southern California, I visited the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda and reviewed it for this blog. This past weekend, in Boston, also on a research trip, I decided to visit the JFK Presidential Library. I was curious to see how it stacked up to the Nixon, and, given my interest in history, it seemed a not-to-be-missed opportunity while I was in the city. So now we’ll see how Jack’s crib compares to Dick’s, and maybe learn a little about our fascinating 35th President.

First things first, John F. Kennedy is one of my personal heroes. I admire him not only as a Democrat, a committed progressive (dare I say “liberal”), but also as a man, who rose above the world of comfort and privilege in which he was raised to take an honest and committed interest in using government to help people and raise everyone in American society. He was also an extremely wise leader, as his behavior during the Cuban Missile Crisis attests; it’s very possible–likely, I think–that Kennedy’s cool head literally saved human civilization. His struggles against an incredible array of debilitating illnesses and physical conditions also mark him as an admirable figure. I was quite excited to see how he would be showcased in the Presidential library, created and directed largely by his family.

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The JFK Library was dedicated in 1990. We are still close enough to 1990 that architecture from that period still looks, for the most part, tasteful. But will it stand the test of time?

The physical plant of the JFK Library is impressive. It’s a concrete slab with a large geodesic glass atrium–a very large empty space deliberately given over to contemplation–but the architects avoided a “brutalist” look that is difficult to escape when you’re working in concrete and glass. It’s a very cheery, bright and open space when you first enter, and the free shuttle bus from the JFK/UMass T stop is a nice touch. A guy at the desk warned me to get a certain brochure when I picked up my ticket, because otherwise the map (another brochure) wouldn’t make sense.

The first thing visitors encounter at the JFK Library–except the lobby and gift shop, of course–is a large movie theater than runs a 17-minute film about Kennedy’s early life. It’s narrated mostly by him, his first-person recollections of his childhood and early career that were evidently recorded when he ran for President in 1960. The film was generally well-done and the first person touch was nice, but it definitely glossed over some important parts of Kennedy’s life. There was no mention, for example, of Rosemary Kennedy, Jack’s developmentally disabled sister (who features a bit later in the library), and the mention of Joe Jr., Jack’s oldest brother, is perfunctory. This is a glaring omission. Joe Jr. had his eye on politics, and his father expected him to take the family, if not to the White House, at least to some lofty office. Joe’s death in action in 1944 devastated Jack and thrust upon him the mantle that he’d never envisioned for himself. This turning point in JFK’s life is barely mentioned in the film. Huge mistake.

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This recreation of a Kennedy/Johnson campaign headquarters office from 1960 is a good way to ground the viewer in the time, by including everyday objects from the period.

The exhibits begin once you get out of the movie. The first one regards the 1960 campaign, which is represented mostly by a wall screen with film clips from the 1960 Democratic Convention. The wall screen stands in a room with chairs and placards made to look like a mid-century political convention. Then after a few wall exhibits, and an ingenious recreation of a Kennedy campaign headquarters office, there’s another wall screen showing JFK’s inaugural address. The next room is a long hallway meant to look like part of the White House, studded with the sort of swag you often see at Presidential libraries–jeweled daggers given by Middle Eastern princes, silver boxes and other knickknacks from around the world. Nixon’s library had rooms of this stuff, mostly from China, but in JFK’s they concentrate it mostly in this hallway.

There are a few more rooms, including one that presents a life-sized recreation of the Oval Office as it looked in Kennedy’s time, but the effect is somewhat ruined by the antique TV equipment strewn around–the Oval Office, for some reason, is made to look as though Kennedy is about to give an address from there. There’s also a recreation of Bobby Kennedy’s office as Attorney General, with papers strewn across the desk; this room stresses both the Civil Rights record of the Kennedy administration, and RFK’s efforts to bring down the Mafia. Aside from another screen showing the ubiquitous “I Have A Dream” speech, this is really all the JFK Library does with civil rights. There are some more knickknacks, including the coconut on which Kennedy scrawled a help message during the PT-109 incident in 1943. There’s one wall about Rosemary and how her plight sparked JFK’s interest in combating developmental disabilities, and another room about how others interpret JFK’s legacy, and that’s almost it.

One excellent exhibit, which is evidently not there all the time, details the Cuban Missile Crisis. This exhibit consists mostly of several listening stations where you can hear actual tape recordings of the tense meetings where Kennedy met with his advisers to discuss the response to the USSR’s introduction of nuclear weapons into Cuba in October 1962. I had never heard the original recordings before. The background info in this section is extremely comprehensive and gives a very fair and fascinating look at the terrible 13 days when the world hung on the verge of nuclear annihilation. Kennedy here comes off as a wise and level-headed decisionmaker, in sharp contrast to the military chiefs urging a belligerent solution. This exhibit is the highlight of the museum. Once you’re out of this exhibit you exit into the large contemplative atrium. JFK’s old sailboat is on display outside.

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I think so much more could have been done with this Oval Office recreation than making it look like a TV studio. There is almost nothing in this display that speaks to who Kennedy was as a person.

The problem with the JFK Presidential Library is that it gives the visitor very little sense of who Kennedy really was as a man. His personality is almost nowhere in evidence here, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis room. Exactly zero is said about his health issues and how he struggled to overcome them. There are some token mentions of his Catholic faith but nothing really in-depth about how he struggled to overcome the religious prejudice that was rampant in America even in 1960. Jacquie Kennedy, who has some gowns on display, pops up in a few exhibits, but she hovers wraith-like and aloof over the scene, with no identity clearly established other than she was the First Lady while JFK was in the White House. Even the knickknacks on display are pretty bland, mostly the aforementioned gifts from world leaders and some artworks that depict Kennedy or part of his legacy. By contrast, at the Nixon library you saw letters he wrote to his wife, his report cards from college, and even the glasses that were on his desk on the day of his fatal stroke. Nothing in the JFK Library gets that personal.

It’s not fair to say that I was disappointed, but there was certainly more that could have been done. The job of a Presidential library is (I suppose) to present its subject in the best historical light, but it must also present him honestly, warts and all. I felt, with a few minor fudges, the Nixon library generally presented their man pretty much as he was, and the charm of the place was that you got to know Nixon as a man instead of just a face in a history book. I don’t feel like I know Kennedy more as a man from visiting his library. Indeed he’s made out to be almost like a movie star, a shimmering Cary Grant of mid-century American politics. This was a man who spent most of his life in physical agony, who chased personal and family demons, and who struggled to temper his privileged life with a global outlook. That’s who JFK was, but that’s not the man I met at the library in Boston. Shame.

I enjoyed my time at the JFK Library, but I’m anxious to see more Presidential libraries. I felt more could have been done with this one. Still, it’s good for a day outing, and worth the admission price.

All photos in this article are copyright (C) 2014 by me (Sean Munger), all rights reserved, and may not be used without permission.

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