Remembering JFK

Barnstable County Assistant District Attorney Joseph P. Kennedy III, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, delivered the following address at the State House on the 50th anniversary of his great uncle John F. Kennedy’s famed “City upon a Hill” speech.


Madame President, Mr. Speaker, thank you for your kind words and for celebrating this day. Most importantly, thank you for your leadership in guiding our state through stormy times.

To the Members of the Great and General Court, thank you for the honor of allowing me to be here with you this afternoon.

Representative [James] Cantwell, thank you for organizing this ceremony and for the invitation to join in today’s celebration with you.

Finally, I’d like to thank my Aunt Vicki [Kennedy] for being here to share in a moment that is truly special for our family.

When I got the invitation from Representative Cantwell, I asked my dad if he had a story that I could tell about Uncle Jack. He remembered one when President Kennedy called Tip O’Neill to the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He asked Tip his opinion on how to deal with Castro and Khrushchev.

Tip gave him his thoughts, which turned out to be pretty good.

Before he left, he asked the President why he had asked for his opinion, foreign affairs not being his specialty.

President Kennedy said, “Tip, you were Speaker of the Massachusetts House. I figured if you could deal with all those factions, Russia and Cuba would be a cakewalk.”

This is a tremendous honor that you bestow upon President Kennedy to mark his departure from his home state he loved so much to that “high and lonely office” he spoke about in his speech. But as we celebrate his accomplishments, the truth is what every member of my family knows: that President Kennedy couldn’t have done it on his own.

All of us in our family are taught that President Kennedy’s victories began in three-story walkups in Charlestown with Dave Powers, the steely judgment of Kenny O’Donnell, the incredible political acumen and organizational skills of Larry O’Brien, coupled with the likes of Dick Goodwin and Ted Sorensen.

And that always, always, always at his side was his family: wife and children, his father and mother, his brothers and sisters.

Together, this literal and figurative band of brothers knew how to fight and when to laugh and in so doing to make the fight a little easier to bear.

They were drawn to President Kennedy because, like he said in his speech, they shared his vision of America as a “shining city upon a hill,” a nation putting its stamp on the American century not just for the sake of America but for the sake of the world.

They were public servants who had lived through the depths of the Depression, the violence of World War, and the chill of the nuclear age and were determined that this nation should remain “the last best hope of mankind.”

This hope both carried President Kennedy and guided him to Washington. It steadied his administration through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War, the integration of Ole Miss and the Civil Rights Movement, Sputnik and the Space Race, and the first steps of the women’s movement.

In our darkest hours and in the most trying times, those “enduring qualities” of our Massachusetts forebears guided President Kennedy. For experience had taught him that America is at its best when instead of putting up fences, we lift up each other; when our leaders unleash that power of human experience rather than exploit its limitations; when we combine the qualities that belong not just to the Yankee or the immigrant, the farmer or the fisherman, the businessman or laborer, but to every American. When, out of many, we are one.

This was the America that President Kennedy championed. This was the America that he needed at his side to take on Krushchev and nuclear arms on our doorstep, racial discrimination and violence. This was the America he knew we could be and he hoped would come to pass.

And for what he represented, he was taken away. As was Dr. King. As was my grandfather, Robert. And I know that we are all hoping and praying that we don’t lose Gabby Giffords as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, something happened last weekend. It is time for a change. For too long, the rhetoric from Washington has been toxic.

Anti-war protesters holding signs saying, “Death to Christian Terrorist Pig Bush.”

Tea Party protesters shouting racist and anti-gay slurs at Members of Congress.

Protesters shouting, “Death to Cheney!”

Radio talk show hosts calling President Obama and Congressional Democrats “communists and traitors.”

Political images from both parties showing opponents in the cross-hairs of a rifle-scope.

This isn’t what President Kennedy stood for. It isn’t what Dr. King or Robert Kennedy stood for.

They took on the big problems of the world. They looked for those “common threads” that unite us rather than diving into identity politics to find the differences that divide us.

This rhetoric creates an atmosphere of hate in particularly difficult times. Our Armed Forces and their families are bearing the terrible burden of a decade of war. Our economy is struggling to recover. Unemployment rates remain high while confidence in the American system is at all-time lows.

Yet, in time such as these, our commitment to each other and our country cannot dim but is more critical than ever, drawing us once again to something greater than ourselves – lives of service and sacrifice, courage and judgment, integrity and dedication. These are the ideals that ought to endure, rather than partisan rancor, naked self-interest, and other corrosive effects of promoting social divisions – a kind of moral gerrymandering that saps our spirit and collective will.

Despite the depths of the perils he confronted, President Kennedy knew that the challenges of the day were no match for the will of mankind. As he counseled, “Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man…Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.”

And for generations, our Commonwealth has shown the way: from the Minute Men to the 54th Regiment, from John Adams to John Kennedy, from William Lloyd Garrison to Susan B. Anthony.

This is our history, the history of Massachusetts — the colony and the Commonwealth.

This history embodies the promise we make to ourselves and to each other. For our history is, in fact, a pledge to defy limitations and wear down the obstacles ahead. In the words President Kennedy so favored – “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

For nearly 300 years, the people of this commonwealth and the people inside these walls have settled for nothing less.

As Americans, we demand the qualities of courage, judgment, integrity and dedication from our elected leaders. As citizens, we demand them of ourselves.

In so doing, we keep not only President Kennedy’s vision alive, but also those patriots who have guided our Commonwealth and our country through periods of calm and crisis.

Thank you so much. And may God bless the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United State of America.