I seem to have landed in Boston while it’s in the midst of non-stop rainstorms. That scotches my original plans which were to walk the Freedom Trail, the Black Heritage Trail and the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. All my walking would have to be indoors. But that’s okay. I’m a Presidential Library aficionado and Boston has one I haven’t been to: The JFK Presidential Library. In my view, having visited several, these libraries approach their subjects one of two ways: burnish their subject’s legacy or put the man in context with his times and explain what made him the kind of President he became. The Reagan Library does the former. The Nixon Library, which I found infinitely more fascinating, does the latter. Ironically, the JFK has much in common with the Nixon Library. By which I mean its primary purpose seems to be to make you understand more about the man.
And I did learn more. I knew he had been decorated for heroism in WWII after his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. I didn’t realize how heroic he’d been. He led his men swimming about a mile toward the nearest shore — pulling a wounded man by a strap he often had to hold in his teeth. Once on shore, he moved his men from location to location to avoid capture, finding food for them and looking for ways to get word to allied forces who might rescue them.
It should be noted that all these feats came after he had legitimately failed his physical for service — although he could have used the wealth and power of his father to avoid the war. Instead, he demanded that his father pull strings to get him IN the war and in a combat position. Two of his brothers, Joe and Bobby, also served.
Another interesting aspect of the JFK Library were a number of alcoves where Kennedy’s most famous speeches were aired in their entirety. I heard the New Frontier speech and his Inauguration speech — which I thought I knew but understood more deeply hearing it in full and in context. Also available to watch in full was the Nixon-Kennedy debate, the first ever televised debate. Now the received wisdom has always been that those who saw it on TV, where Nixon’s sweating and five o’clock shadow made him look shifty, thought Kennedy won. But those who listened on radio thought Nixon won. My experiment was to listen to the entire debate with my eyes closed, then listen to it again while watching it.
I had some time to spare and noticed the Commonwealth Museum across the street. The museum part turned out to be small (the greater part are the archives and library) but well worth the detour — especially since so much of it focuses on groups who are usually left out of history: women, African Americans and Native Americans.
My most interesting take-away was an explanation of wampum, the intricately carved shells that the colonists mistakenly thought were just “Indian money”. In actuality, every part of wampum, from the color to the carved and polished shapes was symbolic. By making an exchange with wampum, both the giver and the receiver entered an explicit agreement about the state of affairs between the tribes or the village whether it be for continued hostility or for peace.
Today I head to the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum. Only to hear tonight that the FBI is again searching the home of a mobster long thought to have been involved in the infamous art heist. I’m hoping the Feds can get the Vermeers and the Rembrandt back on the walls before I show up. I’d really like to see them again.