The Kennedy Legacy

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RFK and the Healing Power of Improvisation

On one of the darkest evenings in American history, RFK reminded us of our potential for greatness.

On April 4, 1968 Robert Kennedy made the greatest speech of his life. In paying tribute to the fallen Martin Luther King, he proved that improvisation can trump political calculation.

America is the story of improvisation.

From the ad hoc debates that framed our founding documents, to the native jazz syncopations that power our cultural soundtrack, to the deeply American notion that we all deserve second chances – our national fabric is woven together by motley patches of spontaneous innovation, creativity and reinvention.

It’s no wonder that we cherish the myth that our history’s greatest oration was scribbled furiously on the back of an envelope during a train ride to a Pennsylvania battlefield.

But while Lincoln’s words were more planned and deliberate, the most significant speech of the 20th century was indeed improvised, a spontaneous burst of prose and poetry in the immediate wake of national tragedy. And much as the Gettysburg Address forever redefined the Founders’ promise that “all men are created equal,” Bobby Kennedy’s extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr.—delivered 46 years ago today—can offer a path toward a more just, compassionate second act for our country.

It was the evening of April 4, 1968, and a bitter, black nightfall had descended on one of our nation’s grayest days.

Rejecting the impassioned urging of local officials who feared imminent violence, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ascended the back of a flatbed truck in a vacant lot, surrounded by dilapidated public housing units, in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto. Hair tussled, wearing the old overcoat of his fallen brother, Bobby stepped up to a single microphone before a growingly angry African-American audience that had waited hours in the freezing cold to confirm what many had already heard: that Martin Luther King, Jr.—their Voice—had been permanently silenced. And without notes, speaking directly from his heart, a heart that ached from an unimaginable half-decade of grief—grief for a brother, for a comrade-in-peace, for a nation in turmoil—Robert Kennedy improvised the speech of his life

The speech’s immediate impact is well known: while riots plagued, burned and ravaged 110 American cities that evening, Indianapolis remained calmed by a sober peace.

But Kennedy’s oration also merits a more timeless significance.

His most famous line, reminding the angry audience that his brother too had been felled by a white man’s bullet, were words that only he could have uttered. And only RFK, who had sought the refuge of Greek poetry to cope with his personal grief from the tragedy of Dealey Plaza, would have quoted these same poets in the middle of what would have been a political rally.

But at the core of the speech, you can find universal language: words that could apply to any generation; words that still resonate today:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black…We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

As he had done throughout his 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy took the opportunity not simply to pacify the crowd in his immediate purview, but also to share a communitarian message that embraced all Americans.

A divisive selfishness had emerged in the late 1960s that had begun to dominate the body politic. If 1967 had the Summer of Love, 1968 brought America the Season of Hate. The anti-Vietnam cauldron was bubbling over, stoked by the heat of the Tet Offensive and the unprecedented prime-time scalding by America’s Most Trusted Man, Walter Cronkite. The civil rights movement had arrived at a bleaker and angrier phase, punctuated by waves of racial violence in urban areas across the country. And Richard Nixon was honing his cynical, yet powerful, appeal to the nation’s bitter undercurrent of selfish resentment, whose targets he would later label the “silent majority.”

Throughout his campaign, but most poignantly on April 4, Kennedy drew upon Greek ideals and Judeo-Christian principles, reminding Americans that the only way that our nation could flourish was through pursuit of a common good. Sure, there would always be outliers and extremists who provoked dissension and divisiveness to strengthen their own selfish hands. But the vast majority of Americans wanted our leaders to put aside their labels on occasion, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to reach for a common higher ground. On one of the darkest evenings in American history, RFK reminded us of our potential for greatness, if only we ignored the haters and remembered the Golden Rule.

We’ve endured more than 40 years of wandering since hope appeared to have taken its final breaths on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and a few months later, when Bobby himself perished in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. More than 40 years dominated by a bi-partisan politics of self-interest, an involuntary conspiracy among the politicians, industry chieftains, culture vultures, and the media, all battling each other to wrest out their own fleeting piece of power, fifteen minutes of celebrity, or pound of fool’s gold.

For the briefest time, when just as Bobby Kennedy had famously predicted, an African-American had risen to the same seat of power held by his brother, we thought that we may have finally entered a post-partisan, post-racial world.  But it was only after a few months in office—and a loud, angry, tea-flavored strain of self-interested politics had sucked all of the oxygen from the political debate—that most Americans concluded Barack Obama’s powerful message of healing and unity appeared, in retrospect, to be naïve and unattainable.

But as our current leaders continue to slavishly recite the poll- and focus-group-tested sound bites handed to them by their political consultants, it would be wise for them to pause to remember Bobby Kennedy’s improvised moment in 1968. We can continue as a body politic to trade hyper-partisan jabs and appeal to our nation’s most selfish impulses; or we can speak from the heart, without the filter of talking points, and use words that identify and promote a common good—that appeal to our most compassionate instincts, values that are at the heart of both our common religious traditions and the nature of the American experiment itself.

Improvising can certainly be unnerving, especially for politicians who are trained to be risk-averse. But as Bobby Kennedy proved 46 years ago today, we as a nation desperately need leaders who will step out of their comfort zones, and take a leap of faith by trusting the very best of the American people.

Filed under RFK Bobby Kennedy Robert Kennedy Martin Luther King MLK King Kennedy

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Jack Kennedy Schlossberg to present the Profiles in Courage Award


The Kennedy foundation is praising George H.W. Bush for risking “his reputation and ultimately his political career by forging an important compromise on the budget in 1990.” Jack Schlossberg, President Kennedy’s grandson and a Yale University student, will present the award to Bush at a ceremony in May.

George H.W. Bush’s epic “read my lips: no new taxes” promise cost him a second White House term, but it’s earning him a 2014 Profile in Courage award from the Kennedy clan. 

Despite his fervent pledge against a hike when he ran for President in 1988, Bush did ultimately agree to raise taxes.

Though Bill Clinton capitalized on Bush’s flip-flop and defeated him in 1992, the Kennedy Foundation is now praising Bush for risking “his reputation and ultimately his political career by forging an important compromise on the budget in 1990.”


“Bush agreed to a tax increase as part of the compromise, and he was pilloried by conservatives for doing so … he did what he thought was best for the country,” the Kennedys said in an announcement Thursday.

Bush spokesman said the 41st President is “touched that the JFK Library Foundation and their committee thought to consider it.”

Filed under Profile in Courage Award Jack Schlossberg Kennedy

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"Jack Kennedy was more the politician, saying things publicly that he privately scoffed at. Robert Kennedy was more himself. Jack gave the impression of decisive leadership, the man with all the answers. Robert seemed more hesitant, less sure he was right, more tentative, more questioning, and completely honest about it. Leadership he showed; but it had a different quality, an off-trail unorthodox quality, to some extent a quality of searching for answers to hard questions in company with his bewildered audience, trying to work things out with their help."

- Robert Kennedy: His Life, by Evan Thomas

Filed under JFK John F. Kennedy Jack Kennedy RFK Robert F. Kennedy Bobby Kennedy Kennedy brothers

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"My father was spectacular at making up stories. And he used to tell me about a purple shark. He said there was a purple shark that used to follow the Honey Fitz [the small presidential yacht]. It liked to eat socks. My father would make people throw their socks overboard, and they’d disappear. He’d say, “See? See? Did you see the purple shark? He ate the socks!” And I’d go [gasps like a child], “I don’t really see him. Oh, oh, I think I see him! Look, the socks are gone, so it must have been the shark that ate the socks!” Those stories were fantastic.”

- Caroline Kennedy remembers her father, JFK

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Rose Kennedy Schlossberg nominated to Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate several individuals to key Administration posts. Among them is Rose Kennedy Schlossberg (25), oldest daughter of US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and granddaughter of the late John F. Kennedy. Rose is a writer and researcher for Red Board Productions, a position she has held since 2012. Previously, she has held various positions with Blowback Productions from 2010 to 2012, including Associate Editor, Associate Producer, and Production Associate. She was a Research Assistant at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University in 2009. She serves as a Trustee of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Rose received a B.A. from Harvard University and an M.P.S. from New York University. 

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Jackie Kennedy’s Notes Reveal JFK’s second Term Plans

By Carl Anthony

There were minor matters to be resolved and legislative agendas to be initiated. There were new directions she intended to take and a progression of efforts he had already begun. Whether President John F. Kennedy  or First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy or both of them would have done all or part of what many journalists, colleagues, staff aides, policy experts and historians presumed or insisted they would have in a second Kennedy Administration, is ultimately a futile matter of regret, hindsight, and speculation. It always proves moot because of his assassination fifty years ago. Killed during what was then only the first preliminary political trip of JFK’s as-yet unannounced 1964 presidential re-election campaign for an intended second term, such assumptions are based on the premise that he would have won. 

In no private memorandum or recorded conversations, did JFK document his intended agenda for a second term, which would have begun on January 20, 1965 and ended on January 20, 1969.

Jacqueline Kennedy, however, did.

Jackie’s Notes
If was not a diary or memoir but it was in handwritten form (some of which she had transcribed onto typed light blue pages), in responding to my questions, and then as clarifications, corrections, edits and insertions she made in 1989 and 1990 in both margin notes and the various drafts of what became my book First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives & Their Power, Volume 2.

About seven years later, in my role as a contributing editor to George Magazine, I mentioned some of this to her son, the magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief. He wasn’t surprised, he cracked, that she thought that far ahead. A glimpse of some of these intentions and forecasts follow below.


While the book’s topic naturally meant the focus was on the work she intended to purse during the rest of the Kennedy Administration, she also addressed what her late husband had planned to do had his presidency continued beyond November 22, 1963, in regard to domestic legislation and foreign relations.

In fact, she addressed not only JFK’s long-range intentions but what he had planned to do later that very day.

Although she did not specify whether he would do so on Air Force One after they left Dallas or when they arrived in Austin and he had private time to work as an overnight guest at Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch, President Kennedy was scheduled to authorize the appointment of his aide Richard Goodwin to a cabinet-level post for the arts and humanities.

In written response to a question I initially posed, Mrs. Onassis said that “JFK was going to sign a paper naming Richard Goodwin to the first Cabinet Post for the Arts.”

When I later incorporated her quote into my manuscript and she later edited it, the former First Lady inserted the words, “on November 22nd,” extending her quotation.

In her earlier declarations to me she explained how she envisioned the role of the federal governments and the widest purview of just what a Cultural Department at the Cabinet level would entail. In a secondary response, she added, “In a way, the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) and NEH [National Endowment of the Humanities] have achieved all this.”

New role
The Texas trip marked the initial domestic travel with a political agenda which Jacqueline Kennedy made as First Lady, with or without the President. It was the beginning of an entirely new role she now intended to assume. She said it was only the first of many such trips she would make. In fact, the morning of November 22, she agreed to join the President on a campaign fundraising trip to California scheduled for early December, 1963.

She also planned to begin making joint public appearances with him on day trips from Washington, beginning with the army-navy football game on December 1, in Philadelphia. Despite the one-month mourning period following the President’s death, Jacqueline Kennedy asked that the game be played in his honor and it was, postponed just one week.


Foreign trips
Scheduled for the winter of 1964, the President and Mrs. Kennedy were to make a tour of nations of the Far East, including Japan and the Philippines. In an early draft of the First Ladies manuscript, Mrs. Onassis added that “[B]oth looked forward” to that trip and were “even thinking of moving the date up, leaving right after New Year’s.” 

Interestingly, despite the great success of her 1962 foreign trips to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan as a goodwill ambassador but official representative of the United States government  on her own, Jacqueline Kennedy had no foreseeable intention of making overseas trips without the President.

She was eager to return to India and Pakistan, but this time with JFK.


Scheduled for the summer of 1964, as President Kennedy would have been pursing the formal nomination for another term and seeking to broaden his appeal, was a vacation trip not to his extended family’s Hyannis Port, Massachusetts compound but, as she sparsely phrased it in an early draft, the “Montana mountains.” This might well suggest what JFK anticipated would be a characterization of him by a Republican presidential opponent as an eastern Establishment elitist.

However, the most startling revelation she made in terms of JFK’s vision for his international politics agenda in a second term involved the People’s Republic of China.

On a later manuscript page, she inserted a lengthy statement to this effect: “The President realized that relations with China would eventually have to be re-established and was considering a trip there in his second term.”

In scrutinizing the manuscript, she removed from it information she documented to be untrue and expounded on what she confirmed was true regarding her own future plans as First Lady.

Historical landmarks
The most startling of all her intentions for a second term was to go public in her lobbying of federal legislation protecting historical landmarks across the country as she had done privately on behalf of the White House and Lafayette Square.

She also wanted to build a far more substantial collection of historical furnishings for the White House so the point could be reached where it would no longer use loaned items for the state rooms: her misgivings were based on the fact that many collectors who loaned important historical objects would soon enough ask that these be returned and then sell them at public auction, fetching higher prices because these items been displayed in the White House.

Once a greater collection had been built, Jacqueline Kennedy was eager to then “cataloging the entire White House collection.”

Of all her later recollections about what President Kennedy intended to do, the most upsetting to her was what she curiously characterized as a “secret meeting,” with U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge.

Her account suggests that he went into uncharacteristic detail with her about the reasons for this, briefing her fully on the current and unfolding situation.

He would have had two strong reasons for doing this.

First, he was meeting with the Ambassador not at the White House but at their private weekend home “Wexford,” thus intruding on what was supposed to be set aside as time alone with her and their children.

Second, since the time they had first begun dating, while he was a freshman U.S. Senator and she was a newspaper columnist and photographer, he had known of her particular depth of knowledge and nuanced understanding of the delicate situation in Vietnam which, along with Laos and Cambodia, formed the former French colony of “Indochina.” She had begun studying the situation since 1949 while enrolled at the Sorbonne and she also translated French military policy reports for him on the matter in 1953.

It is unclear why the account provided by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1990 contradicts the later publicly reported claim that the meeting was to take place at Camp David.

As the former First Lady specifically amplified my original manuscript account:

“He [JFK] was searching for a way to relieve the ambassador of his duties and to gradually diminish the U.S. presence in Vietnam. JFK had scheduled a White House meeting on this subject for Monday morning, November 25.”

This particular intention of JFK’s, “haunted for years” Jacqueline Kennedy (as her friend, the JFK-LBJ Defense Secretary Robert McNamara put it in our taped interview) because instead of beginning perhaps “to gradually diminish the U.S. presence in Vietnam” on Monday, November 25, 1963, the President was instead being buried at Arlington National Cemetery that day.


Filed under Kennedy John F. Kennedy Jack Kennedy Jackie Kennedy Jackie JFK

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JFK’s Five Favorite Songs & What They Tell Us About Him

In the flood of books and television documentaries released in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, too little attention is paid to the significant role that music played in JFK’s life. It’s worth remembering that musical associations are bound to be some of the first things we think about when JFK comes to mind: Camelot, his friendship with Frank Sinatra, Marilyn’s rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and the like.

Indeed JFK would forever associate pop songs with the two great tragedies of his young life: the deaths of his brother Joe and his sister Kathleen. Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” was playing on the radio in the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port house when the family received the brutal news that Joe had perished in an airplane crash while on a dangerous mission in 1944.

JFK was young congressman in 1948 listening to the Finian’s Rainbow Broadway cast album in his Washington apartment when he learned that his beloved sister “Kick” had been killed in a plane crash in France. The song “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” played as he broke down in tears.

Ted Kennedy wrote in his memoirs that hardly anyone but family and friends knew that JFK had a nice singing voice and that he regularly sang at family gatherings, often accompanied by his mother’s piano playing.

Author Steven Levy recently said this about the music on our iPods: “It’s not just what you like, it’s who you are.” JFK never owned an iPod, but knowing the songs he liked best and understanding why they were important to him can give us insight into who he was.

These were his five favorite songs:

1. "Blue Skies" as sung by Frank Sinatra. “Blue Skies” became one JFK’s best-loved songs when he was a young man, and remained so throughout his life. Composed in the 1920’s by Irving Berlin, “Blue Skies” was popularized by several of JFK’s favorite performers: Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby in the 1930s and Frank Sinatra in 1946. The song captures the optimistic and carefree attitude of the future president. Indeed, in later years Kennedy aides would describe clear blue skies as “Kennedy weather” because of its positive effect on the candidate and the crowds that came to see him. The hope and optimism that JFK inspired in his countrymen as president are reflected in the confident faith in the future reflected in “Blue Skies.” JFK was a huge fan of Sinatra’s music, often playing his albums in the White House. He attended his Sinatra and the Rat Pack’s show at the Sands in Las Vegas in February 1960, and Sinatra re-recorded his 1959 hit. Despite a widely publicized 1962 falling out between the two camps, when Sinatra’s casino license was revoked by the Nevada Gambling Control Board in 1963, JFK tried to help. During a September 28 visit to Las Vegas, JFK asked Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer, “Aren’t you guys being a little tough on Frank?”

2. "I Love Paris" as performed by Les Baxter and his Orchestra. “I Love Paris” is from the Broadway showCan-Can by Cole Porter. “I Love Paris” was another song that JFK loved and another that is associated with a carefree time. In her 1997 memoir Love, JackGunilla von Post detailed her previously unknown affair with JFK. In the book she recounts Kennedy’s visit with her in Sweden in the summer of 1955. She depicts JFK as a sensitive man happy to be away from his public and family obligations back home. Enjoying a bit of anonymity for perhaps the last time in his life, JFK sang “I Love Paris” as they drove through the Swedish countryside.

3. "Camelot" as sung by Richard Burton. Inevitably we must mention the song most associated with the Kennedy legend. Indeed “Camelot” lent its very name to that legend. Most of us will recall that JFK’s name only became associated with the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot in the wake of his death. Camelot was built around the fictional tale of King Arthur and Lancelot. In an interview just a week after the assassination, Jackie told author Theodore H. White that JFK used to play side two of the Camelot cast album before turning in at night. “If Ever I Would Leave You” sung by Robert Goulet was the first song, and “Camelot” sung by Richard Burton was the last. Jack called “Camelot” “the song he (JFK) loved best.” Jackie insisted that this story be included in White’s article, telling him: “They’ll be great presidents again, but they’ll never be another Camelot.”

Indeed, there are many connections that bond Kennedy and Camelot, including the fact that Lerner was a prep school classmate of JFK’s who organized his 1963 birthday show at the Waldorf in NY. Lerner and Loewe graced the cover of Time magazine on Election Day 1960. Camelot opened on Broadway a few weeks later, starting its run exactly as JFK was about to take office, making the show and administration contemporaries.

The sense of loss felt to the public and the association between the song and the show was evident to all asCamelot toured the U.S. in the months after JFK’s death. When the houselights came up following the “Camelot” finale, the audience was often crying en masse.

4. "I Believe in You" as sung by Robert Morse. Less known is JFK’s love of another Broadway show of the era, Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and the song “I Believe in You.” JFK saw the show in New York in early 1961 and he had the original cast album in his White House record collection. We know the latter fact courtesy of Mimi Alford, who wrote of her affair with JFK in her 2012 memoir Once Upon a Secret. Alford recalls that JFK loved the song “I Believe in You,” noting that he was especially fond of the way Robert Morse sang the lines about being a “seeker of wisdom and truth.” The show is now forever seen as a Mad Men-era time capsule, rightly associated with the JFK administration.

5. "September Song" as sung by Walter Huston. JFK’s favorite song was undoubtedly the wistful “September Song.” Composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, “September Song” was written specifically for gravel-voiced actor Walter Huston to sing in the 1938 Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday. Although both Bing Crosby and Sinatra recorded the song during the ’40s, it was Huston’s version that topped the charts after it was heard in the 1950 movie September Affair. In the lyric the older narrator explains to a younger lover that his time is short and he can’t play “the waiting game.” He lists the months of the year as a metaphor for life passing by quickly mentioning “September… November.” At JFK’s inaugural gala in Washington the night before he took office, comedian Jimmy Durante — who had a voice that made Huston sound like Caruso — added a strangely somber (and eerie prescient) note to the otherwise exuberant proceedings when he offered his own version of “September Song.”

JFK’s lifelong friend Lemoyne Billings would later state that by the time he reached his early thirties, JFK had seen so much death and had been sick so often that he began “living for the moment, treating each day as though it were his last, demanding of life intensity, adventure and pleasure.” Many commentators would note that JFK refused to “wait his turn” and was already planning his White House run while still only a first term senator. JFK sang “September Song” at numerous family gathering through the years, sometimes even imitating Huston’s voice as he did so. His close aide Dave Powers later wrote that JFK sang “September Song” after dinner at his family’s Palm Beach mansion on Saturday before he went to Dallas. Powers noted that he sang it “better that usual” that night.

(Source: The Huffington Post)

Filed under JFK John F. Kennedy Camelot Kennedy

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'I am conscious of my responsibility to uphold the ideals he represented — a deep commitment to public service, a more just America and a more peaceful world. As a World War II veteran who served in the Pacific, he had hoped to be the first sitting president to make a state visit to Japan. I am humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way and represent the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies.'

- JFK’s oldest child Caroline Kennedy finally steps into the limelight as the  29th US Ambassador to Japan

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