ARLINGTON, Va. — In the glow of history, the president buried beneath the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery represents the full promise of leadership — part reality, part myth — against which today’s politics are inevitably, unflatteringly, compared.
“He was a leader,” said Darryl Spears, a 49-year-old data analyst from Montgomery, Ala., who stood by John F. Kennedy’s grave on Tuesday. “We don’t have those anymore.”
He and other visitors filed solemnly past the granite stones where President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, presidents who themselves have labored to emulate Kennedy, will join together Wednesday and lay a wreath in commemoration of Friday’s 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963.
The visitors paid respects to a man they never met but whom they have felt they have always known, some brought to tears by the memory of his presidency and the assassination that ended it.
In interviews, they lamented the tragedy of the murder itself, but also the seeming absence, in a perpetually gridlocked capital, of a national leader with a vision to do great things.
“There used to be statesmen in Congress when Kennedy served,” said Lane Hemming, a 71-year-old retired teacher from Rexburg, Idaho. “I can’t think of one statesman today. They’re politicians, not statesmen.”
Hyannis Port on Cape Cod represents happy times for the Kennedys. Arlington Cemetery, rising just across the Potomac River from the capital, represents the lives cut short.
Not far from Jack Kennedy lies Robert F. Kennedy, shot in Los Angeles in 1968. Just down the hill is Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the only one of the brothers to realize a full political career, who died in 2009. Two of the former president’s children — Patrick, who died as a newborn, and an unnamed daughter who was stillborn — are buried by him, and the first lady, Jacqueline.
In the hours after his death, many expected Kennedy would be buried at the Kennedy family plot in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline. But in an effort to make him more accessible to the American public, his family and advisers chose Arlington National Cemetery.
“He belongs to the people,” Jackie Kennedy said at the time.
Within three years, more than 16 million people had visited the grave, about on par with how many visit Disneyland annually. The cemetery now gets nearly 4 million annual visitors, and most visit the Kennedy memorial.
On Wednesday, there was the hotel manager from Manhattan, whose father would tell him stories about Jack Kennedy. There was the teacher from Maryland, telling his students about where he was when Kennedy died. There was the deer hunter from Florida who first saw his grandmother cry when Kennedy’s funeral appeared on television.
There were babies in strollers and old men with canes. They wore winter hats and Red Sox caps. Some came to observe the 50th year since the assassination. Others simply felt drawn to the Kennedy history, the mystique.
“It left such an indelible mark on our lives,” said Elizabeth Novack, a 60-year-old school superintendent from Anaheim, Calif. “I don’t know how anybody could stand here and not feel something at your core about who we are as Americans.”
Janice Hemming, a 71-year-old from Rexburg, Idaho, welled up as she spoke about her love of country. Euthimios Theotokatos, a 29-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y., came to leave a small image of the Virgin Mary atop Kennedy’s grave.
Comparisons to modern presidents are almost unfair. Kennedy and his White House are frozen in time in the minds of Americans, in a presidency not quite three years old.
“It’s a story that never finished,” said Brian Horais, a 64-year-old government retiree from Knoxville, Tenn. “So there’s a lot of magical nature to it.”
Clinton idolized Kennedy, and shook his hand during a trip to the White House as a teenager. For Obama, Kennedy helped propel the civil rights movement, many of the dreams of which were realized when the first black president was elected in 2008.
Obama won the White House with the help of crucial endorsements from Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, and brother, Ted Kennedy (Obama and his wife, Michelle, will be joined not only by Clinton on Wednesday but also by Hillary Clinton, the candidate he beat for the 2008 Democratic nomination).
Kennedy saw government as an instrument of great good, a vehicle to accomplish sweeping national goals. He pushed for Medicare and more funding for education, and he sought an increase in the minimum wage rate. He gained funding for a space program, and helped establish the Peace Corps.
That sense of the federal government as a positive force faded at times in the last half century. There was the disillusionment and corruption that marked the presidency of President Richard M. Nixon, and the laissez-faire, small-government policies of President Ronald Reagan.
Obama campaigned in 2008 on a Kennedyesque vision, promising programs to uplift Americans, put people to work, clean the environment. He has sought to reinvigorate the nation’s sense of government activism, particularly with his signature health care reform. But his presidency was weighed down by a crippled economy, strident Republican opposition, and a capital that is frequently ridiculed in the public discourse.
Obama presided over a GOP-instigated government shutdown. His approval ratings have reached the lowest point of his presidency.
Kennedy was never tested by a second term. On the day he was buried almost exactly 50 years ago, there was a 21-gun salute.
Fifty fighter jets flew overhead, along with Air Force One, which tipped its wing. Army bugler Keith Clark played Taps. On the sixth note on that chilly autumn day, there was a crack, a missed note that would symbolize the nation’s pain.
Arlington National Cemetery was a place Kennedy knew well, a place where he would visit frequently, thinking of his older brother, Joseph, who died in World War II.
In the spring of 1963, months before he was killed, Kennedy made an impromptu Sunday visit to the cemetery with one of his close friends, Charlie Bartlett.
It was one of the spots that Kennedy could go to get outside but still remain protected by the Secret Service.
“I said where are you going to be buried?” Bartlett recalled in an interview this week. “And he said, ‘Well, it’d be Boston where my library is going to be. Of course, there will be no library if there’s no second term. Because nobody would give a damn.’ ”
Several months later, he was buried not far from where they had been standing that day. There would be a library in Boston because, it turned out, people did give a damn.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of years Kennedy served as president.