Sam Allis: Kennedy Library Shows President In Triumph Over Faults

Roundup: Talking About History

On a recent soft and smoky afternoon, a carbon copy of the one 42 years ago this Tuesday when I learned JFK had been killed, I visited the museum to his legacy.

Like New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty, plenty of Bostonians have never darkened the doorstep of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester overlooking Boston Harbor. I couldn't remember the last time I'd wandered through the place.

Presidential museums are strange things. They openly traffic in hagiography. We know this going in and buy our tickets anyway. (You want a real look at a guy, buy a book.) We accept an airbrushed version of a man that would otherwise insult our intelligence in exchange for a weird brew of history and nostalgia that is often as flat as day-old beer.

Not so with the Kennedy hagiography, which is endlessly fascinating because he was so much more gifted than, say, Gerald Ford is, and because the gap between our current understanding of Kennedy and the museum portrayal is so staggering. He also served in large times.

We now know a destructive dark side so utterly at odds with his manicured exterior the manic sexual escapades and the prodigious amounts of drugs he took simply to function. We know he was dragged into the civil rights fight rather than picking it.

But confronted with circumstances he could not ignore, and pushed by his brother Bobby, Kennedy gave a great civil rights speech in 1963 and joined the fray. If his drug consumption was appalling, it did not limit his acuity during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Historians concur he kept the coolest head in the room of advisers and, more important, asked the best questions. There's nowhere to go with the sex other than calling it what it is: desperate and pathetic and cruel.

There is great thought behind the museum exhibits, which unfold in chronological order from the Democratic National Convention in 1960 to Dallas, a dark blip here. We begin with his experience in the Pacific during World War II nothing fresh there and a fine short film on Kennedy by Peter Davis.

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