BOSTON — John F. Kennedy’s enduring influence on Massachusetts is palpable. We frequent numerous Kennedy roads and Kennedy lanes, our children may attend one of the 16 Massachusetts schools named after the fallen president, and many of our public servants and activists were galvanized by the Camelot era.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) is one of those public servants. She was up late with her grandmother on a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean when she first heard Kennedy speak.
He was giving his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. At that point, the congresswoman said she was “virtually apolitical,” but something changed that night.
“I don’t recall anything he said, but I just remember the sort of energy, and something in his voice, that really drew my attention,” she said. Kennedy brought a different sensibility to the presidency and attracted people to politics, Tsongas said.
When Kennedy was assassinated, Tsongas was a high school senior living in Tokyo. Because of the time difference, someone called her father, an Air Force colonel, in the middle of the night to deliver the news.
“I know, now that I’m in office, once we elect people, we can’t take them back. And they have to confront things as they come. And I think we saw in him, and we learned at a very young age, that there’s nothing predictable about serving one’s country,” said Rep. Tsongas. “I think we all wish we had been able to see him as an older man.”
“I used to love his press conferences,” Jones remembered of Kennedy. “Any time he had a press conference, even in the middle of the day, I would try to get before a television to watch him deal with the press. He was in command of information, he was in command of facts, he was witty.”
Jones felt that substantial change was on the horizon on June 11, 1963, when the president addressed the nation on civil rights.
“The country had to come to grips with what was going on in the streets of the South, and in northern streets as well, and there had to be civil rights legislation and we had to embrace folks of color in this country in a real way,” said Jones. He did acknowledge that no one knows how Kennedy might have steered the nation in terms of equality had he served a full term or been re-elected.
“He didn’t have enough time to prove whether or not he would carry it out or pull it off but he represented a way forward, a chance to break with these awful patterns of racism in this country,” he said.
Jones described Kennedy’s assassination as “a dagger in the heart.”
“I think everybody was really weeping. Even people who weren’t weeping, they were weeping inside,” said Jones. “This was dastardly, this was an assault upon the democracy.”
Gov. Deval Patrick was 7 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
“There are some things I very vividly have in mind,” he said. “Like watching the funeral in the living room of our grandparents’ place, in front of their black-and-white TV, and it was the first time I ever saw my grandfather cry.”
But that faded memory had a profound impact on the governor.
“John Kennedy very much believed and spoke about the importance of being involved in our civics, not leaving it to others, making it personal and becoming engaged and taking responsibility for it,” Patrick said. “And that has inspired me.”
Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) remembers his great uncle as an advocate on all fronts.
“From conservation to education to social justice, President Kennedy advocated for a citizenry that cared for, invested and engaged in the country they were lucky to call home,” he said.
Kennedy added: “He challenged all of us to achieve a better and bigger future for our country: where man would walk on the moon; where individuals with disabilities could enjoy opportunity, not indifference; where skin color would not disqualify you from democracy or basic human decency; and where hundreds of citizen ambassadors across the globe could sow the seeds of peace.”