Though no baby boomer will want to face this, in just under three years it is going to be the centennial of President John F. Kennedy. And the country should begin now to prepare for an appropriate celebration, something in proportion to previous grand presidential centennials where observances have lasted at least a year; where Congress, the White House, federal departments, universities, presidential libraries and other educational institutions focus on what the man meant to this nation and to the world.
There is a magnificent tradition in this nation of observing such anniversary moments. Most recently, the country did a first-rate job in 2009 of celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. And who knew that an African-American senator, also from Illinois, would get inaugurated as the commemorations began?
In the 1980s, there were widespread observances for the centennials of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These included what was then the second-largest celebration in the Smithsonian’s history, with FDR exhibits in 12 of its museums. A joint meeting of Congress featured the speeches of FDR; another one featured Harry Truman’s former aides.
These observances emphasized two of the great successes of 20th century America, FDR’s standing up to the Axis Powers and Truman’s standing up to the Soviet Empire. Couldn’t we use a reminder of JFK’s successes dealing with nuclear weapons?
As it did for other centennials, Congress now should pass legislation forming a national commission with representatives from both parties, the private sector and academia that could begin to organize official activities. Special one-time appropriations should be made available for the Kennedy Library in Boston, much as Congress did in the mid-1970s by giving Stanford’s Hoover Institution $7 million for Herbert Hoover’s centennial (about $31 million today), and perhaps also for space exploration, the Peace Corps and Washington’s Kennedy Center, JFK’s living cultural memorial.
Think for a moment about how many schools in this nation are named after JFK. Wouldn’t it be great for all of them to use this unique occasion to teach their students the history of that time? Of course, this kind of celebration would include media coverage, encompassing the oldest film footage to online social networks.
All of this would allow the next president to use JFK’s memory to inspire and capture the imagination of today’s young people, as JFK did in his time. People need to be reminded that great world-changing accomplishments begin with individuals — an idea that is particularly important today as more and more citizens grow disenchanted with politics.
Numerous polls show the continuing relevance of John Kennedy. He remains part of our collective memory.
The recent observances of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination showed there is no shortage of interest in his tragic death. It is time to focus on his life.
Peter Kovler chairs the Center for National Policy and the Kovler Foundations and led the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Centennial Committee in 1982 that was a key factor in the creation of the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Robert Dallek is a historian specializing in the presidency whose many books include, “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963.”