President Barack Obama spent his day on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 honoring former President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination which will be on Friday, Nov. 22. President Obama began his day with honoring 16 outstanding individuals at the White House including Former President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was originally established by Kennedy, also marking its 50th anniversary. Then Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Arlington National Cemetery where there was a brief ceremony memorializing Kennedy at the eternal flame marking his grave. In the evening a special dinner marked 50 years of the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of both 35th President John F. Kennedy’s creation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awards, with over 500 honors and the Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22 by gunman Lee Harvey Oswald while the President was riding in an open motorcade during a pre-campaign visit to Dallas, Texas, that left a nation in mourning, and the potential for the rest of his presidency lost.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom awards the “meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” This year Obama bestowed the honor on 16 individuals both living and dead, most notably; Former President Clinton, Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Country singer and songwriter Loretta Lynn, Feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, and mega broadcast journalist and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
In his remarks prior to presenting the awards in the White House’s East Room, Obama used both his introduction and conclusion to honor President Kennedy, who created the award fifty years ago. The President stated; “This year, it’s just a little more special because this marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award. We’re honored, by the way, today to have with us one of my favorite people — Ethel Kennedy — and a pretty good basketball player, President Kennedy’s grandson, Jack.
Continuing Obama recounted the number of recipients while mentioning the honorary dinner in the evening; “This medal has been bestowed on more than 500 deserving people. Tonight, I’m looking forward to joining some of these honorees, as well as members of the Kennedy family, as we pay tribute to these 50 years of excellence. And this morning, we’re honored to add 16 new names to this distinguished list.”
In his speech’s conclusion, Obama expressed; “I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit — that it’s represented here. And some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people’s hearts and minds in our smaller orbits.”
After the awards ceremony’s reception, President Obama, First Lady Michelle and Former President Clinton and Hillary Clinton headed together in a limousine to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath laying ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
There the Obamas and Clintons laid a “large blue and white wreath” at Kennedy’s grave that is marked by an eternal flame. A bugler played taps, and they read the inscriptions at the grave to themselves and then both first couples left separately.
Later in the evening during his speech at the Presidential Medal of Freedom 50th anniversary dinner, Obama spoke about the afternoon ceremony; “This afternoon, Michelle and I were joined by President Clinton and Secretary Clinton to pay tribute to that proud legacy. We had a chance to lay a wreath at the gravesite at Arlington, where President Kennedy is surrounded by his wife and younger brothers, and where he will rest in peace for all time, remembered not just for his victories in battle or in politics, but for the words he uttered all those years ago: ‘We…will be remembered…for our contribution to the human spirit.'”
Both Presidents share a Kennedy connection; Clinton met Kennedy and shook his hand in 1963 while a member Boys Nation, the photo of that meeting was often used in Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. While Obama had the support of former Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, who died in 2010, former President Kennedy’s youngest brother, during his 2008 Presidential campaign, whose early endorsement helped garner Obama the Democratic Presidential nomination, leading to a Presidential victory. In both 1992 and 2008 both Presidents’ claimed they were the next generation that the “torch was passed to.”
President Kennedy’s grave and memorial is made from granite stone native to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, close to where the Kennedy family had their summer compound in Hyannis Port. The eternal flame was Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline’s idea and she lit it at the President’s funeral.
Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, wife of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated only 5 years later in June 1968, attended the ceremony where both presidents assisted her in climbing the stairs to Kennedy’s grave.
Kennedy’s only direct descendent, his grandson, Jack Scholossberg, 20 attended the memorial and served as the official host greeting the dignitaries and guests who arrived. His mother Caroline Kennedy, the only living child from the President, did not attend as she just late last week headed to Japan to begin her ambassadorship to the country. Caroline Kennedy, 55 views her ambassadorship as an extension of her father’s legacy, he wanted to be the first U.S. President to visit Japan after World War II, but his death cut his plans short.
Kennedy’s wife and Caroline’s mother Jacqueline Kennedy died in 1994 and is buried beside Kennedy in Arlington, along with baby Patrick Kennedy, who died in 1963 after only living a few day is also buried beside them. Another son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. died in July 1999, at 39 from a plane crash, as he headed with his wife Carolyn Bissette Kennedy and sister-in-law to his cousin’s Rory’s wedding in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod.
Speaking in the evening at the Presidential Medal of Freedom 50th anniversary dinner, President Obama gave mostly a tribute the creator of the awards in his remarks. Obama extensively spoke of President John F. Kennedy and his family, and their devotrion to public service. Obama first spoke of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, explaining; “It’s a truth that resonated with President Kennedy when he said, ‘…I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we…will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.'”
Concluding, Obama praised Kennedy’s legacy, Stating; “This is a legacy of a man who could have retreated to a life of luxury and ease, but who chose to live a life in the arena — sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it. And that’s why, 50 years later, John F. Kennedy stands for posterity as he did in life — young, and bold, and daring. And he stays with us in our imagination not because he left us too soon, but because he embodied the character of the people he led. Resilient, resolute. Fearless and fun-loving. Defiant in the face of impossible odds and, most of all, determined to make the world anew — not settling for what is but rather for what might be. And in his idealism –- his sober, square-jawed idealism –- we are reminded that the power to change this country is ours.”
President Obama’s day-long tribute to Kennedy’s legacy was only of the many this week marking the President Kennedy’s untimely death, in a nation that still mourns the legacy of what could have been.
President Barack Obama’s Remarks at the 50th Anniversary of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nov. 20, 2013 — Video
President Barack Obama’s Remarks at Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony, Nov. 20, 2013 — Video
Wreath Laying Ceremony in Honor of President John F. Kennedy – Video, Nov. 20, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.