New JFK exhibit offers a glimpse into the president’s humanity
In a scrapbook he kept at Choate School, John F. Kennedy expressed a sentiment that would be familiar to any student dreading the resumption of classes: “School begins — Oh God.”
The teenage president-to-be kept a scattered account of his activities and interests at the Connecticut boarding school. Kennedy, part of a group of pranksters called the “muckers,” loved lighthearted pop music. But he also gravitated toward the grim. Kennedy listed his favorite poem as “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” Alan Seeger’s invocation of wartime mortality.
The scrapbook is among nearly 40 documents and artifacts being displayed for the first time as part of an intimate look into Kennedy’s life and political rise.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has included the items among 100 pieces in its collection opening Friday as part of the celebration honoring the May 29 centennial of the president’s birth.
Stacey Bredhoff, museum curator, said the show will bring visitors closer to a man who for many now lives solely as a historical figure.
“It’s the everyday things that I think really speak to his humanity,” Bredoff said as she showed the exhibit to The Boston Globe Thursday. “These are the things that make him come alive, because these are the things that everyone can relate to.”
Items like pencils from the Oval Office bearing bite marks, a childhood sketch of a tree on a hillside, and the suitcase he used during his presidential campaign give a glimpse into Kennedy’s everyday life.
The exhibit also creates a broader picture of some of the themes that would define Kennedy’s path: love of the arts and writing, the crystallization of a young politician’s ambition, a dismissive attitude toward the health problems he faced throughout his life.
One of the first items on display is a card file kept by Kennedy’s mother, Rose Kennedy, who used it to record her children’s vital statistics and the various ailments they faced. One card pulled from the file says little Jack had suffered whooping cough, measles, and chickenpox, among other maladies.
In the high school scrapbook, Kennedy wrote about a two-month illness with a blood disorder: “It certainly was grand.” A television interview as Kennedy was weighing a run for president shows him answering questions about his injuries from World War II.
Stephen Kennedy Smith, a nephew of the president and co-editor of “JFK: A Vision for America ,” a collection of speeches and current-day reflections on them, said Kennedy’s health and his charisma combined in a unique way.
“He is a combination of vulnerability and strength, and that is compelling to people,” Smith said.
He praised the library’s efforts to show Kennedy as he was in life. He believes the effort will highlight ideas that remain important today amid debates over aid for the poor, arts funding, and government support for science.
“I think that in order for ideas to feel real and relevant, they have to be connected to a real person, and people need to feel the authenticity of that person, and the authenticity of that person’s connection to their lives,” Smith said.
About halfway through the centennial exhibit, items from Kennedy’s presidency begin to appear. There’s a presidential seal from his media briefings at the State Department, his Cabinet Room armchair, and artifacts from John Glenn’s mission as the first American to orbit the Earth.
Documents included in the exhibit also highlight Kennedy’s thinking during the civil rights movement, amid increasing military involvement in Vietnam, and leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.
There’s also lighter fare, like two Cold War era garden gnomes depicting Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — a gift from a resident of West Germany.
Among the most earnest items is his draft of the speech he gave at the groundbreaking for a library at Amherst College named for Robert Frost. On it, Kennedy has crossed out the line “when power intoxicates, poetry restores sobriety,” replacing it with “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
With the exit door in view, the exhibit pulls back from Kennedy’s historical moment and focuses back on the mortal man. Narrow ties; a cigar, cutter, and lighter; and two chestnuts picked up by his children from the White House grounds are among the items that sit in a glass case below a constellation of previously unseen family photos.
The next-to-last item is Kennedy’s undelivered remarks prepared for Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated.
The exhibit closes with a posthumous Jamie Wyeth portrait of Kennedy, which shows the president gazing into the distance, his hand placed pensively in front of his chin. For Bredoff, the painting, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the most personal touches in the show.
“It’s almost like a physical presence in the gallery. That’s how I see it,” she said.