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Getting to know John F. Kennedy

Arts and CultureElectionsMuseumsJohn F. KennedyPoliticsLibrariesHarvard University

On Tuesday, millions in Washington, D.C., and billions around the world will watch as Barack Obama takes the oath of office as president of the United States. In 1961 on the same date -- Jan. 20 -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy took the same oath.

The comparisons with JFK began long before the first ballot was cast and the two leaders' similarities become even more apparent during a walk through the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston. Both men were relatively young -- in their 40s -- when elected. Both are handsome, charismatic men who overcame prejudice -- Kennedy's religion, Obama's race -- to claim victory. Both immediately faced serious economic troubles, including high unemployment and a sagging stock market.



If you go

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day; (866) 535-1960, www.jfklibrary.org.

JFK Hyannis Museum on Cape Code is open Thursdays through Saturdays in November and December and then closes until mid-February; (508) 790-3077, www.jfkhyannismuseum.org



As a child growing up in Boston in the '60s, Tom Putnam wasn't old enough to comprehend a bad economy or the Cuban missile crisis, but he clearly recalls his parents' reverence for JFK. Like the president, they too were Irish Catholics.

"There was a crucifix with palm leaves on one wall, and on the opposite wall, a photo of JFK," Putnam says of the family's living room. He adds that, by his recollection, his parents genuflected more often before John Kennedy than Jesus Christ.

"He really was someone who was larger than life in the household that I grew up in," he adds.

It's therefore easy to understand why Tom's parents -- John and Virginia Putnam -- beam with pride when they tell people what their son does for a living: He's director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

Perched on a promontory overlooking Boston Harbor, the museum is, Tom Putnam says, "the nation's memorial" to JFK.

But it's just one of the many places in Massachusetts where visitors can learn about one of America's most beloved leaders. From his birthplace in suburban Brookline to his beloved Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, poignant insights into the 35th president abound.

With its comprehensive examination of Kennedy's political life, the museum is the ideal place to develop an understanding of, and an appreciation for, JFK. Wherever possible, Kennedy's recorded interviews tell the story of his tenure in the White House. Nearly half a century after they were spoken, the words still have a contemporary resonance.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy spoke of the momentous challenges facing America, using words that seemed to presage some of those used by Obama on election night in November.

"All this will not be finished in the first hundred days," Kennedy told the nation. "Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Kennedy learned his skills as a wordsmith as an undergraduate at Harvard University in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston. There, he was an editor for the student newspaper, the Crimson.

Putnam says Cambridge was Kennedy's first choice as the site for his presidential library. The campus of America's oldest college is best viewed on foot, and several walking tours of the famed Harvard Yard are offered. One of them is led by students and, unlike others, it's free.

From Cambridge, it's a short drive to Kennedy's birthplace at 83 Beals St. in Brookline. His boyhood home is now a national historic site; tours are offered in the spring and summer.

In 1929, when JFK was 12, his father purchased a big, two-story house in the seaside village of Hyannis Port as a summer home for his large family. Over the years, additional homes were built for Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Edward in what came to be known as the "Kennedy compound." Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) still lives there, as does Robert's widow, Ethel.

The wood-shingled house that was the president's sits empty these days behind a wooden fence along Irving Avenue. "This was his home, there's no question about it," says Howard Penn, a longtime family friend. "Until this day -- if he were still alive, God bless him -- I'm sure he would be in Hyannis."

Penn, who's 76, runs Puritan Cape Cod, a Hyannis clothing store that's been popular with the Kennedys for decades. The walls of his office are covered with dozens of framed photographs of both the Penn and Kennedy families.

Just across Main Street from the store in the former town hall is the JFK Hyannis Museum, a repository of examples of Kennedy's close relationship with the cape.

"The time President Kennedy spent in Hyannisport (sic) during his youth and presidency were among the happiest days of his life," his brother Ted notes in one of the exhibits.

Nearby, amid campaign mementos is one of JFK's famous rocking chairs. Badly injured in World War II, Kennedy often sat in rockers to relieve his chronic back pain.

"I can't remember ever [calling him] 'Mr. President,' " Penn says. "It was always Jack. And that's how he wanted it."

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