Why Kennedy endures: The voice, vision and legacy of a president.
The Washington Post
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- Includes CD
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- 6.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)
- Age Range:
- 15 Years
Meet the Author
Robert Dallek was a winner of the Bancroft Prize for his book FDR and American Foreign Policy. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, published in 2003, sold 230,000 copies in hardcover in the United States and Canada and an equal number of copies in hardcover and trade paperback in the United Kingdom. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Terry Golway is also the author of Washington's General, a biography of Nathanael Green. He writes for the New York Times, American Heritage and the New York Observer. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
A City Upon a Hill
Address to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
January 9, 1961
John F. Kennedy's great-grandparents sailed from Ireland to Boston in 1847, a year remembered in Irish and Irish-American history as "Black '47." The main food supply of the poor, landless Irish farmer-the potato-had failed in 1845, and again in 1846. By 1847, hundreds of thousands were dying or leaving.
Bridget and Patrick Kennedy escaped death and starvation, and started a new life in the slums of East Boston. Poverty in America was harsh, but it was preferable to death in Ireland.
Before long, children began to arrive-the first members of this Kennedy family born in the United States. By the summer of 1853, Bridget and Patrick Kennedy had four children. But little John, eighteen months old, was terribly ill. The child had cholera, one of the many plagues that regularly visited the urban poor of East Boston and other cities in the mid-nineteenth century.
John Kennedy did not survive. He died in late 1855. Remarkably, though, his three siblings did not contract the disease. Often cholera could and did wipe out entire families.
Less than three years later, John's parents, Bridget and Patrick Kennedy celebrated the arrival of another son, whom they christened Patrick Joseph but called P.J. Their joy was to be short-lived. Before the child was a year old, the family patriarch, thirty-five-year-old Patrick Kennedy, became desperately ill. He, too, had cholera. He died on November 22, 1858.
P.J. Kennedy grew up without a father. His mother did her best, as so many immigrant women did, to keep her family together by any and all means necessary. Eventually, P.J. opened a saloon and started a family of his own. His son, Joseph Kennedy, would become U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the patriarch of one of the world's most-famous families. And in January, 1961, P.J. Kennedy's grandson, John F. Kennedy, became President of the United States.
When President-elect Kennedy stood before the political leaders of Massachusetts on January 9, 1961, for what he vowed would not be a farewell address to his native state, he said nothing of his family's remarkable saga. The setting, the ornate Massachusetts statehouse, would have seemed perfect for a nostalgic reminiscence, or a self-consciously humble recitation of the Kennedy family's extraordinary story:. Here was a son of Massachusetts, speaking to a joint session of the commonwealth's legislature, surrounded by familiar faces, preparing to set off for the White House. There could have been no better occasion to reflect on the journey from Sumner Street in East Boston to Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital, accomplished in three generation. So many of the men and women gathered to hear the President-elect saw him as not just another Massachusetts man made good-the commonwealth had shared its sons with the nation since John Adams-but as a symbol of what courageous immigrant families could achieve in America. He was more than a son of Massachusetts. He was a Catholic. His great-grandparents were poor immigrants who fled Ireland during its darkest hour. His grandfather overcame tragedy and poverty to found a business. Regardless of how one felt about the new President's politics, it was hard to deny that his was a compelling story, a story made in Massachusetts.
What's more, he was historically important. As the first Catholic President, he was the first person from outside the country's Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority to assume the highest office in the land. His importance to Catholics and to the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants was clear. Less obvious, but compelling nevertheless, was his importance to other groups outside mainstream American culture, circa 1960. Though he was wealthy and privileged, a white male with a degree from the finishing school known as Harvard University, he was described in the Times of London as the first president from a member of a minority group. And so he was.
Today, when all politics is autobiography, when candidates and officeholders talk as much about their lives and their families as they do about public policy, those who continue to chip away at barriers to high public office are not shy about celebrating their achievements. But there was no such sense of triumphalism in John Kennedy's non-farewell speech to his home state.
When he compared the task of assembling a government to a notable journey across the Atlantic, the ship he cited was not the leaky vessel that brought his great-grandparents from Ireland to Boston, but the flagship Arabella, which brought John Winthrop and the Puritans from old England to New England. Rather than refer to the immigrant history that was more immediate and more personal for so many of his listeners, he chose imagery from the very founding of the nation, by men and women whose descendants were the proverbial blue-blood Brahmins of Beacon Hill. Their leader, Winthrop, set the standard to which Kennedy aspired. Quoting Winthrop, Kennedy said: "We must always consider . . . that we shall be as a city upon a hill . . . The eyes of all people are upon us."
The reference would later become associated with Ronald Reagan, who offered the same quotation from Winthrop in a speech in 1974. More famously, Reagan repeated the quotation throughout his presidency, including his farewell speech in 1989. Through the years, however, Reagan ad-libbed a bit by adding the adjective "shining" to Winthrop's original phrase-as in "a shining city upon a hill." Mario Cuomo, in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, challenged Reagan not so much on the authenticity of the quote, but on the execution of its sentiments. "A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well," Cuomo said. "But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one, where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate."
Undaunted by Cuomo's rhetorical counter-punch, Reagan returned to the theme in 1989, saying that "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still."
When Reagan died in 2003, many eulogists said the former President's vision of America was encapsulated in that famous phrase "shining city upon a hill." Some seemed to believe the quote originated with Reagan. And few realized that Ronald Reagan was not the first President to adopt Winthrop's vision as his own.
But what, precisely, did it mean? In Kennedy's view, it meant that that "our governments, in every branch . . . must be as a city upon a hill, constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities." There is no mention of governments in Reagan's vision; there is no mention of people in Kennedy's.
It is, in any case, a historical curiosity that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, descendants of Gaelic-Irish immigrants and, in their own way, symbols of that more diverse America which emerged in the 20th Century, were inspired by the vision of a Puritan from England who sailed to a new world in the seventeenth century.
As he left Massachusetts in 1961, John Kennedy took on the challenge of building an administration that would match the promise of his words.
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