35. John F. Kennedy

JFK Birthplace (October 2012)

When I think of the greatness of John F. Kennedy, I don't think of the insane philandering. Or the intellectual laziness. Or the endless string of favors his dad called in on behalf. Or the conspiracy to cover up his frail condition. Or his obscene sense of entitlement. No, I lump all those things together, and I marvel that JFK could achieve them while coming from humble upper-middle-class roots. He inspires us all.

As to those roots: Joe Kennedy was a bank executive, and Rose Kennedy was the daughter of the mayor of Boston, "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. They got married in 1914, and being good Irish Catholics they set out to spread god's love through unprotected sex. The newlyweds bought a house in Brookline, outside the city and with nicer schools, and got to spawning. Joe Jr. came along in 1915 and JFK followed in 1917. They were born in the master bedroom on the second floor of 83 Beals Street. (Being upper-middle-class in 1917 still didn't get you born in a hospital.) Ironically, the room had separate beds.

You can see that room for yourself! The National Park Service owns 83 Beals Street these days, and it's restored vaguely to the way it looked a century ago. The downstairs has a parlor, a dining room and a kitchen; the second floor has a bathroom and three bedrooms; and the third floor is where the servants slept, because upper-middle-class people could actually have two live-in servants back then. The kids kept coming (there would be nine in all), so the family moved to a much larger house a few blocks away in 1920. But the first decade of JFK's life was spent in and around Brookline, and the rangers will tell you all about it.

It's fascinating stuff. Parts of JFK's childhood seem normal. The Beals Street house was the last on the block and backed up on a large field where the kids could play; Joe Kennedy was a sports nut (his baseball photos are in the upstairs hallway) and pushed his boys into competing. JFK was crappy at school at did his best to hide it from his parents.

Other parts of his upbringing bring out the pop psychologist in all of us. JFK was laid up with illnesses for long stretches; if it killed a bunch of children in the early 20th century, JFK had it. The dark side of the sports obsession was Joe Kennedy's one rule for his kids: never ever lose at anything. That's exactly the kind of ethic you see in healthy, well-adjusted adults.

And then there's Rose. The house at 83 Beals Street is as much a museum to her as to JFK. After he died, people started swarming the property to the point where the owner wanted to unload it. Rose bought it, restored it to her memory of its 1917 appearance (there were no interior photographs), then gave it to the Park Service in 1969. So what you're seeing when you visit is what the family wanted to project, and NO ONE manipulated crap more than the Kennedys. The room where he supposedly convalesced has a chair near the door with two books on prominent display; one of them is filled with King Arthur legends. Camelot, get it?

Rose also had a little office in the house, because she believed in the "scientific mothering" movement, which was not at all crazy and surely produced children with perfect mental health. From her Telegraph obituary: "Rose Kennedy approached motherhood as an exercise in management efficiency. She kept a card-index system in which she noted her children's progress, and carried out daily inspections for missing buttons." They have card boxes on display in the house. Scientific mothering had lots of charming quirks, like forcing your kids to brush their teeth in order of their age. It's the sort of thing that you can really embrace when you have two servants and a cold, uber-Catholic exterior. One of the most telling details about the house is that the kitchen and the servants' quarters are not attempted restorations; Rose couldn't remember them because she didn't spend much time in either.

I'm not a JFK fan. I wasn't alive in the '60s, so I never got sucked into the cult. The more you read about the guy, the harder it is to like him as a person or a politician; when people talk about what an influential figure he was, they're talking about some glamorized ideal rather than an actual human being. Even so, it's intriguing to learn about how it all began. People like JFK usually aren't 100 percent cyncical manipulators. They eventually start believing their own BS, and they have people around them who encourage it. One of the rangers on duty said most of the visitors think of JFK as their favorite president -- a fact that is mystifying but fascinating if you love history.

Some pictures to round out our visit: the first is the parlor. The second is a delightful family portrait from Joe Kennedy's youth, back the whites of everyone's eyes were simply enormous. And the third is the exterior of the house on Abbotsford Road where the Kennedys moved in 1920. It's privately owned now, but as you can see from the yard decorations, some things never change in Massachusetts.

Arlington Cemetery (September 2007, December 2013)

I think you have to have lived through the 1960s to really "get" JFK (or The Doors, or feminism). On paper he's a bad president, and you can also argue that his credentials as a person are a bit iffy -- he was born with a silver spoon in every orifice, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn't even write, he cheated on his wife like it was his job, his dad essentially bought elections for him, and he was narrowly elected president following highly irregular voting. He didn't do a ton for the economy, he didn't really advance race relations, he came very close to starting a nuclear war, and he put us on the path to Vietnam.

But people love him. Whatever he was, the moment he died he became a symbol. Instead of a one-term president with a bunch of flowery speeches and nothing to show for it, he was the inspiration that let other, more competent people actually get stuff done. His gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery captures that dynamic. I'm not big on schmaltz, and I don't think all that much of JFK, but the eternal flame marking his grave is actually touching. The marker is simple, the torch is simple and the whole thing is eerily quiet. This is the part where I'm supposed wax poetic about indomitable passion and unconquerable energy, but I don't feel like it. Instead, go listen to "I Believe I Can Fly" off the "Space Jam" soundtrack. Actually, while I'm thinking of it, that's what I want for my grave. R. Kelly playing on a continuous loop. Honor my wishes.

The remains of JFK get to enjoy one of the best views in the DC metropolitan region; he is on a hillside that overlooks the Potomac and the monumental core of the capital. A nice stone pavilion near his grave is carved with JFK quotations that he almost certainly didn't write. His wife is by his side, and a little further up the hill is Arlington House -- a stately mansion once owned by Robert E. Lee. It adds some classical elegance to the whole scene.

He also has good company. Bobby is next door, underneath another understated and graceful marker.

FUN JFK FACTS!

  • Though a hunchback in terrible health, he scored like nobody's business. So much for your excuses, huh?
  • The only Roman Catholic president, and therefore the only president that has any chance of going to heaven.
  • The first Boy Scout to become president, and the only Boy Scout to earn the elusive "Nuclear Brinksmanship" merit badge.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White