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Former Assistant, Niece Reflect on JFK's Legacy

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Former Assistant, Niece Reflect on JFK's Legacy

Former Assistant, Niece Reflect on JFK's Legacy

Former Assistant, Niece Reflect on JFK's Legacy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Fifty years ago today, one of America's most revered presidents was sworn into office. His inauguration speech, John F. Kennedy implored the nation to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Host Michel Martin discusses the slain president's legacy with Richard Donahue, Vice Chairperson of the JFK Library Foundation, who was at the inauguration. They are joined by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, John F. Kennedy's niece and the daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.


Now we'd like to go back to a moment in history that marks how many Americans think about public service even to this day. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy. As he took office, he delivered a speech that has become an indelible part of America's collective memory. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of inaugural speech)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask what not your country do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: The 50th anniversary of that speech comes at a time when questions are, once again, being raised about the way politics is practiced in this country. Kennedy's commitment to public service was, of course, shared by his brother-in-law. And we note that Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr. died earlier this week at the age of 95. Sargent Shriver was the founding director of the Peace Corps and played a key role in the Johnson administration's war on poverty.

We wanted to talk more about the Kennedy family legacy. And so we spoke earlier this week with Richard Donahue. He's the vice chair of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. We also spoke with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She is John F. Kennedy's niece. She's a former gubernatorial candidate from Maryland. She's the oldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. And she's also a member of the JFK Library Foundation board of directors. And I first asked Richard Donahue what it was like being at the ceremony on that cold, snowy day 50 years ago.

Mr. RICHARD DONAHUE (Vice Chair, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation): It was a very exciting time. It was the first moment for a Democratic president, after eight years of Republican rule, and it was an opportunity for Democrats all over the country to come to Washington.

MARTIN: What was going on, in part, at the time that motivated John F. Kennedy to make that particular call? Can you help remind us of that?

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, it was - the question was - what was the status of the country? He had campaigned on the basis that we were losing ground and we were not taking our proper role. And so it was a call to action.

MARTIN: And Ms. Kennedy Townsend, of course, in that time, as in the present time, your uncle was a person who inspired a lot of young people to get involved and kind of helped them think about public service in a different way. Now, you were only 10 years old at that time.

Ms. KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND (Member, JFK Library Foundation Board of Directors): Well, actually, nine. I turned 10 later that year.

MARTIN: Okay. You were only nine. But do you remember what that occasion meant to you?

Ms. TOWNSEND: It was extremely exciting. It was, as you pointed out, very snowy, very cold. And in a sense that was perfect because I think what John Kennedy was saying to all of us, life is tough, life can even be unfair, but take action. Give something back. Be excited about the challenges, rather than retreat from them. He asked us, I'll ask you for sacrifice, but if you do it, it will be better for all of us.

And that's a wonderful message. And as Dick said, you know, a change from the eight years under President Eisenhower, which was sort of trying to quiet things down, rather than saying, this is a time of action, a time of change, a time of challenge.

MARTIN: And Mr. Donahue, you know, every administration generally comes in with a lot of excitement about the task ahead and a desire to make things better. And I wondered if you would take us back to - do you remember what it was that people were most excited about tackling? I mean the speech was not all sweetness and light. There were some tough words in there.

He talked about the nation calling upon citizens to bear the burden of a long twilight of struggle against the common enemies of man, and those enemies including tyranny, poverty, disease and war. So it was not just a sweetness and light speech, but can you help us remember what the challenges that...

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, I indeed, I do remember. It was a time of challenge, but it was his attitude that we had a country that was available to answer the challenge. And so that Washington was astir with all of the people who have -excited about the thought of a new presidency. And they were all anxious to join in.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, Mr. Donahue, if you don't mind my asking. Well, first, I do want to hear what the library's doing to commemorate the anniversary, what some of the events will be that people might be interested in. But then I also want to ask you about your thoughts about the tenor of our political discourse at the moment, which is something that's been very much in the news.

Mr. DONAHUE: I certainly remember that it was - it's much different than it was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago it was an excited environment, but not particularly antagonistic. And it wasn't about weakness in other people.

MARTIN: What are some of the events that people might participate in to commemorate the anniversary.

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, the library is celebrating the three years of President Kennedy. So that we've started already and had the election night, which we recreated at the library with the television reports and the declaration of the winning states. We have tapes of it. It showed Walter Cronkite being handed slips of paper and he'd say, oh, he's leading in Oregon, he's leading in... And then he'd be handed and said, no, it's in New Hampshire. It was the sloppiest performance you ever saw, but that was all there was at that time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration as president. Our guests are Richard Donahue, a friend of the family and vice chair of the JFK Library Foundation. We also have with us, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, John F. Kennedy's niece, the oldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. She was there, too. She was 9 years old.

You know, this is an historic day for your uncle, but it's also the 21st is the 50th anniversary of when your father was sworn in as the attorney general. And what would you like us to be thinking about, particularly in relation to that important day? I mean, for many people now, we think about his very vigorous struggle in advance of civil rights, which is very difficult.

Ms. TOWNSEND: It was very, very tough. Three things that I think about my father. One, I think what he was able to do is see the challenges of justice in our country and let other people see them, who would prefer not to. Number two, as you say so eloquently, he took on the issue of civil rights. And I don't think when he became attorney general he knew what a tough challenge that was. He basically said, just get people to vote.

And then, as he was attorney general, he saw the intractable challenges that were posed by a Governor Wallace or a Ross Barnett. In fact, this letter he sent me on June 22nd, 1963, a letter that said, Dear Kathleen, we are trying to get two negroes into the University of Alabama over the objections of Governor Wallace. I hope when you get to college, you won't have these challenges. And one of those students was Vivian Malone, whose sister is Dr. Sharon Malone, and married to our present attorney general, Eric Holder. So it's wonderful that it's come around, but he learned as each day passed, just how tough civil rights was.

And the third thing that he understood was that the question of justice is what kind of society we had. And so we took on the issue of juvenile justice because he thought that too many kids were getting in trouble because they didn't have a good education, because they didn't have the mentors they needed or the adults who get them the jobs. And that if you were going to be a just country, you couldn't just go around prosecuting people, you had to create just conditions.

MARTIN: I am interested in your take on the question I asked Mr. Donahue earlier, which is the tenor of our politics today. You know, comparisons are always tricky, but your father was called many names in the course of his (unintelligible).

Ms. TOWNSEND: Yeah. I mean, I guess I have a slightly different view of politics. I mean, when I was growing up, when I was three and four and five years old, he was called ruthless all the time. In fact, I think he only became quiet after somebody said to him, where is your sense of decency? And then obviously we were not talking about that today. But, when my uncle, John Kennedy, went to Dallas, it was a vicious, vicious place with terrible things that were said.

So we have had, maybe right in 1960 and '61, a more civil conversation, but certainly 50 years ago there was very, very tough things said, with bad consequences, obviously, in Dallas, but also, many lives were destroyed by the McCarthy hearings.

MARTIN: What is your take on the moment we are now in? And is there a way forward? Do you think this is just something we need to get used to?

Ms. TOWNSEND: No. I mean, I think Americans realized they don't want to have such vicious conversations. I think the president did such an extraordinary job in Tucson by saying, can we live up to the expectations of our children? And tamp down that kind of rhetoric. That can be done and should be done because we have real questions about what kind of country we want to be, really. Not just throwing names around.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Donahue, final thought from you. What would you want us to be thinking about today?

Mr. DONAHUE: First, think of the speech that he made and the call to action that he made. Ask yourselves whether or not we responded to it. And we have, in many ways. After all, we put a man on the moon, which was something he called for. We introduced and eventually passed the civil rights bill. There are things that are available and that can be done. But we need the support of the people.

MARTIN: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, final thought from you. I mean, so many things have transpired in your life. So much personal triumphant, yet personal tragedy up to and including just a few years ago when you lost your other uncle, Senator Kennedy.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Right.

MARTIN: And we are so sorry for that loss and all the losses.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Thank you. And I think we certainly miss Teddy a whole lot. It's interesting that this conversation has really been about America. The inaugural speech was often really about foreign policy. And I think my uncle, President Kennedy, certainly my father Teddy and Sarge Shriver, all - the men in the family - I would say Eunice, too, my mother. Can't be prejudiced against the women. But understood that America was important not only for Americans, but as a symbol of freedom and fairness and justice around the world.

So, what John Kennedy understood is America has a role in the world and an important responsibility there.

MARTIN: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the oldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. She is the niece of - one of the nieces of John F. Kennedy. She's a member of the JFK Library Foundation board of directors. She's also the author of the book "Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way." And she was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Richard Donahue is the vice chair of the JFK Library Foundation, and he was kind enough to join us from his home office in Venice, Florida. I thank you both so much for joining us on this important day.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Thank you so much for having us.

Mr. DONAHUE: Thank you very much.

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