Visiting presidential libraries and museums is one of the bucket list goals my wife and I have enjoyed the most. We’ve been to nine over the past year, most recently to John F. Kennedy’s this week in Boston.
It is one of the most impressive of the 22 we’ve seen so far, although all have been interesting, informative and well worth seeing, from the largest, Ronald Reagan’s in Simi Valley, California, to the smallest, Calvin Coolidge’s, this week at Northampton, Massachusetts.
Reagan’s had an actual Air Force One (the old Boeing 707 variety), Marine One helicopter and full replica of the Oval Office. Richard Nixon’s was surprisingly and commendably honest about his role in the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation.
U.S. Grant’s is in the library at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi, because the university is the repository for his papers; it is modest in size but very impressive in presentation. Coolidge’s is the only one in a public library, in a single room with few artifacts, most notably the Indian headdress the taciturn Vermont native wore in an iconic 1927 photograph when he was made an honorary Sioux chief.
The Kennedy museum had special meaning because his presidency played an important part in my life and for my generation. I wasn’t old enough to vote for him but was in college when he was elected and when he died. I met him once and spent several very memorable days at the White House in the office of his press secretary researching my master’s thesis.
The Cuban missile crisis was just weeks before I was to graduate and many of my classmates and friends feared there would be nuclear war before then. JFK inspired us and many in our generation to pursue public service, teaching, government, journalism and the peace corps.
The continuously playing videos of his speeches, press conferences and interviews are still striking. More so because of the unavoidable contrast between the 35th and 45th presidents, something that couldn’t be missed by anyone going through the museum, although it was unintentional and predated Donald Trump’s presidency.
Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president; Trump the oldest.
Both were sons of wealthy, domineering fathers; one was directed to public service, the other to amassing a fortune.
One was anxious to serve his country in time of war, enlisting even after he flunked the physical the first time; the other pulled strings to avoid service, getting a questionable note from his doctor saying he had bone spurs.
One was a genuine war hero, the other delighted in insulting one of his generation’s leading war heroes.
One man had grace and wit, was eloquent, a voracious reader and a student of history. The other, just the opposite. One received the Pulitzer Prize for a book he wrote, the other holds a grudge for not getting an Emmy for his reality TV show.
One was famous for his self-deprecating sense of humor, the other a thin-skinned narcissist known for spewing insults and derisive nicknames at all who displease him.
Both presidents were masters at using the media, particularly television. One was the first president to broadcast live press conferences, the other ended regular White House press briefings, avoided formal press conferences and waged vicious and open war on the news media.
As president, JFK took responsibility for his mistakes, like the Bay of Pigs, and learned from them; Trump, again, just the opposite.
Some of JFK’s most notable White House cultural guests were Pearl Buck, Robert Frost, Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern and Tony Bennett. Trump brought in Kanye West, Kid Rock, Kim Kardashian and Ted Nugent
One brought us the best and the brightest, the other the worst and most corrupt.