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Presidents: John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, Brookline, Massachusetts

Visited in 2012.

When I think of the greatness of John F. Kennedy, I don't think of the insane philandering. Or the intellectual laziness. Or the endless string of favors his dad called in on behalf. Or the conspiracy to cover up his frail condition. Or his obscene sense of entitlement. No, I lump all those things together, and I marvel that JFK could achieve them while coming from humble upper-middle-class roots. He inspires us all.

As to those roots: Joe Kennedy was a bank executive, and Rose Kennedy was the daughter of the mayor of Boston, "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. They got married in 1914, and being good Irish Catholics they set out to spread god's love through unprotected sex. The newlyweds bought a house in Brookline, outside the city and with nicer schools, and got to spawning. Joe Jr. came along in 1915, and JFK followed in 1917. They were born in the master bedroom on the second floor of 83 Beals Street. (Being upper-middle-class in 1917 still didn't get you born in a hospital.) Ironically, the room had separate beds.

You can see that room for yourself! The National Park Service owns 83 Beals Street these days, and it's restored vaguely to the way it looked a century ago. The downstairs has a parlor, a dining room and a kitchen; the second floor has a bathroom and three bedrooms; and the third floor is where the servants slept, because upper-middle-class people could actually have two live-in servants back then. The kids kept coming (there would be nine in all), so the family moved to a much larger house a few blocks away in 1920. (Also, they were on their way to being obscenely upper class, as Joe Kennedy was pieceing together what would today be a multi-billion-dollar fortunre.) But the first decade of JFK's life was spent in and around Brookline, and the rangers will tell you all about it.

It's fascinating stuff. Parts of JFK's childhood seem normal. The Beals Street house was the last on the block and backed up on a large field where the kids could play. Joe Kennedy was a sports nut -- his baseball photos are in the upstairs hallway) -- and pushed his boys into competing. JFK was crappy at school at did his best to hide it from his parents.

Other parts of his upbringing bring out the pop psychologist in all of us. JFK was laid up with illnesses for long stretches; if it killed a bunch of children in the early 20th century, JFK had it. The dark side of the sports obsession was Joe Kennedy's one rule for his kids: never ever lose at anything. That's exactly the kind of ethic you see in healthy, well-adjusted adults.

And then there's Rose. The house at 83 Beals Street is as much a museum to her as to JFK. After JFK died, people started swarming the property to the point where the owner wanted to unload it. Rose bought it, restored it to her memory of its 1917 appearance (there were no interior photographs), then gave it to the Park Service in 1969. So what you're seeing when you visit is what the family wanted to project, and NO ONE manipulated crap more than the Kennedys. The room where he supposedly convalesced has a chair near the door with two books on prominent display; one of them is filled with King Arthur legends. Camelot, get it?

Rose also had a little office in the house, because she believed in the "scientific mothering" movement, which was not at all crazy and surely produced children with perfect mental health. From her Telegraph obituary: "Rose Kennedy approached motherhood as an exercise in management efficiency. She kept a card-index system in which she noted her children's progress, and carried out daily inspections for missing buttons." They have card boxes on display in the house. Scientific mothering had lots of charming quirks, like forcing your kids to brush their teeth in order of their age. It's the sort of thing that you can really embrace when you have two servants and a cold, uber-Catholic exterior. One of the most telling details about the house is that the kitchen and the servants' quarters are not attempted restorations; Rose couldn't remember them because she didn't spend much time in either.

I'm not a JFK fan. There are things to admire about the man, like his discipline and determination in the face of extremely painful health problems. He was coping with family dynamics that no one would envy, and he clearly inspired people around his causes. But I wasn't alive in the '60s, so I never got sucked into the cult. The more I read about the guy, the harder it is to like him as a person or a politician; every positive is offset by a garish negative. When people talk about what an influential figure he was, they're talking about some glamorized ideal rather than the actual human being.

Even so, it's intriguing to learn about how it all began. One of the rangers on duty said most of the visitors think of JFK as their favorite president -- a fact that is mystifying to me but fascinating if you love history.

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas

Visited in 2017.

Most presidential sites are affirmative. They tell you why a president was great, or above average, or at least a pretty nice guy if you caught him on the right day. They teach us about character-building experiences, amazing accomplishments and anecdotes that are clearly made up but somehow accepted as true.

The Sixth Floor Museum is something stunningly different. You could call it a "Kennedy site," but it's less about a president and more about a moment. The Texas School Book Depository might be the most famous crime scene of the 20th century. Lee Harvey Oswald, who worked there as a shipping clerk, used a sixth floor window as a sniper's perch. He wounded Texas Gov. John Connally and killed President John F. Kennedy as their motorcade turned down Elm Street in downtown Dallas, alongside the small park known as Dealey Plaza. Oswald escaped the building in the confusion that followed, then killed a Dallas police officer in the manhunt that followed. He was captured at a movie theater, then gunned down Jack Ruby on live television two days later.

Or so the Illuminati would have us believe, right? When it comes to logic and reasoning, the Kennedy assassination is bulletproof. No matter what the evidence suggests, there will always be people questioning the "lone gunman" narrative and seeing a deeper conspiracy. And hey, you can't prove them wrong! Maybe it was the Communists, or the mafia, of Lyndon Johnson, or aliens. (Let's be honest, it was aliens.) We're more than five decades removed, so new evidence isn't going to magically appear, unless the conspiracy involved magicians. Which it might. Trust no one, especially if they have a hat with stars on it.

To its great credit, the Sixth Floor Museum does not try to dispel the madness. Instead, it summarizes what we know. In 1963, the space was unremarkable. It was a place where boxes of books were stored, and there's nothing all that exciting about a warehouse. (Excluding the abandoned one where you lost your virginity, of course.) So they found a better use for a largely open floorplan. There are now informational displays -- bolstered by an excellent audio guide and video installations -- that walk you through the moment.

It starts by explaining the tumult of the 1960s, and the purpose of Kennedy's visit to Dallas. Those displays lead you to the the corner window where Oswald was situated. It's the only part of the sixth floor "restored" to its appearance that day, based on crime scene photos. There's a gripping account of the post-assassination police work, and an extensive look at the investigations that followed. (Among the very cool exhibits: An insanely detailed model of Dealey Plaza used by the Warren Commission.) They even include a nod to all the conspiracy theories, probably because one of them is true. BUT WHICH ONE?

In all phases, the museum emphasizes the emotional impact of the assassination and its long-term affects on the people involved. And when the president is shot, everyone is involved. They don't allow photography on the sixth floor, but you can jump up to the seventh floor to see a few small exhibits and peek out of the corner windows one floor above the sniper perch. And you are completely free to check things out at street level. People still leave wreaths and other tokens of their affection for JFK on the grassy knoll, and you can sit at the same spot where Abraham Zapruder took his famous video. Depending on when you visit, you might see some Xs on the roadway marking the approximate locations where the bullets struck their targets. I say "depending," because apparently they have removed the Xs on several occasions, as morons were running into traffic to pose on them. God bless America.

A few blocks away you can find Kennedy Memorial Plaza. It features a tribute to the president which has been described as an "open tomb." Essentially, it's a concrete room with 30-foot walls, no ceiling, and something that resembles a grave marker in the center. It has been there since 1970, and it looks like it belongs in 1970. I found it clunky, like someone tried to pound a Texas aesthetic on top of whatever memory of JFK was left behind.

But if you're in Dallas, don't miss out on the museum. And be sure to buy a "Sixth Floor Museum" shot glass in the gift shop, assuming they haven't caught on to the irony yet.

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia

Visited in 2007, 2013 and many other times.

I think you have to have lived through the 1960s to really "get" JFK (or The Doors, or VW microbuses). On paper he's a mediocre president, and you can argue that his credentials as a person are iffy -- he was born with a silver spoon in every orifice, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn't write, he cheated on his wife like it was his job, his dad essentially bought elections for him, and he was narrowly elected president following highly irregular voting. He didn't do a ton for the economy, he didn't really advance race relations, he came very close to starting a nuclear war, and he put us on the path to Vietnam.

But people love him. Whatever he was in life, in death he was transformed into a symbol. Instead of a one-term president with a bunch of flowery speeches and nothing to show for it, he was the inspiration that helped other, more competent people get stuff stuff done.

JFK's funeral was, by most accounts, one of the most culturally significant events in American history. Thanks to television, the nation had a front-row seat to tragedy in a way that had not existed in the past. A whole society was grieving -- profoundly! -- at the same time. The days before the funeral saw JFK's remains honored in the White House, and then in the Capitol rotunda. A procession took his coffin to St. Matthew's, the center of Catholicsm in Washington. Finally, he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetey, befitting his status as a Navy officer and the commander-in-chief.

His gravesite captures the JFK dynamic. I'm not big on schmaltz, but the eternal flame marking his grave is sincerely touching. The marker is simple, the torch is simple and the whole thing is eerily quiet. (Fortunately, the opted against the eternal confetti cannon.) The remains of JFK enjoy one of the best views in the DC metropolitan region; he is on a hillside that overlooks the Potomac and the monumental core of the capital. A nice stone pavilion near his grave is carved with JFK quotations that he almost certainly didn't write. His wife is by his side, and a little further up the hill is Arlington House -- a stately mansion once owned by Robert E. Lee. It adds some classical elegance to the whole scene. He also has famous company. Bobby and Teddy are nearby, underneath understated and graceful markers.

And weirdly, he's not far from Robert Todd Lincoln. Abraham's son was nearby on April 14, 1865, and rushed to his father's deathbed. He was an eyewitness when an assassin shot James Garfield in 1881. He was attending the Pan-Amerian Exhibition in Buffalo when William McKinley was fatally wounded. And now he's a short walk away from Kennedy.

History is weird, right?

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts

Visited in 2015.

Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes told me that if you're going to dedicate so much of your life to a president, you gotta love 'em. Otherwise, what's the point?

It therefore stands to reason that every presidential site is at least a little biased. The people curating homes, libraries and museums are usually smart, dedicated and thoughtful. They can acknowledge the weaknesses and failures of the people they study. But they're dedicating their careers to a president, so they have to be a little bit in the tank, right? It's human nature.

That said, the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is on another level. Some museums see things as they are and say, why; the JFK Library dreams things that never were and says, why not?

The museum thoroughly whitewashes Kennedy's legacy, brushing aside almost every possible negative interpretation of his actions. At the time I visited, there was minimal mention of his health problems and barely a whisper about his marital indiscretions. All of his political causes were noble and all of his missteps were someone else's fault.

Want a fun historical "what if" game? Ask yourself what would have happened if Kennedy had lived. (Lots of historians have done it! It's totally cool!) He wasn't visiting Texas in November 1963 on victory lap; he was fighting for uncertain re-election. He had almost no chance of delivering on his legislative program in 1964, so he would have been running on ... well, pretty speeches that he mostly didn't write. JFK was an impressive person, but it's not crazy to think he could have faded into mediocrity.

But I suppose it's all moot. The easier thing is to consider it a museum to the Kennedy legend, and then you can relax and enjoy its finer qualities.

The artifacts are outstanding. The replica of Kennedy's Oval Office is great, right down to one of the signature rocking chairs he favored for relief of his bad back. For the "space race" exhibit, they have the friggin' space capsule from Freedom 7. (Or at least the did when I went. Not sure if it's a permanent loan from the Smithsonian or not.) They have the Kennedy family bible, used in the 1961 inauguration. They even have index cards from the so-called "jelly donut" Berlin speech. It's all great to see.

And the building is pretty! That's not surprising, as the designer is I.M. Pei, and the location is right on Boston Harbor. There's a cool atrium, and the galleries have a plush, classy decorative style. It feels like New England money, which I guess is the point.

Boston loves the Kennedys, to an extent that defies reason: for example, Teddy pretty much killed a woman and still got re-elected by 25 points the next year. And then he was re-elected six more times, while having a well-documented record of relentlessly molesting women. In death he's honored with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate ... which is right next door to the JFK library. I didn't visit there because I didn't want my head to explode.

But if you stick to the JFK Library you'll probably be fine.

The Basics

Places You Should Visit

What Am I Missing?

Suggested Reading

Headliner of State

Fun Kennedy Facts!