Arts & Life


Today is Columbus Day, a holiday that commemorates both a voyage and a voyager. Our movie critic, Bob Mondello, says he's never seen a good film about Columbus' voyage, but he has other reasons to think fondly about this day.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, President Kennedy hosted a ceremony in the Rose Garden and I was there, 14-year-old me with my family. This was a fluke. The president had cracked a politically uncool Mafia joke a few days before. Not wanting to offend Italian-American voters, the White House quickly mounted a charm offensive, inviting government workers like my dad, with Italian surnames like Mondello, to celebrate a great Italian explorer with the president himself.


PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY: I want to express a very warm welcome to all of you, to the White House. I can't think of any group that are more welcome here today. We're particularly glad to salute you on Columbus Day. I think Columbus has been a fascinating figure to me for many reasons, but partly because of his extraordinary skill as a navigator.

MONDELLO: Now, this was a comparatively innocent era, especially when it came to the impact of Europeans on the American continent. My history classes did not mention Native Americans much in connection with Columbus, and neither did Mr. Kennedy. He talked about being a sailor himself, but mostly used the moment to look forward.


KENNEDY: The first voyages, as all of us know, are the more difficult whether it's going into space, going to the bottom of the ocean, building a better country here. And I'm glad to welcome all of the successors of Christopher Columbus. And you do not have to be of Italian extraction to be able to claim that inheritance. All of us...

MONDELLO: There were many kind words about an Italian heritage I'd barely given any thought, and a good deal of laughter, despite the fact that it was an unwise ethnic joke that had brought us all together.


KENNEDY: I think we have some friends from Spain who had something to do with this voyage.


MONDELLO: Years later, I learned that what turned Columbus Day into a national holiday was a push by the Knights of Columbus, a mostly Irish-Catholic organization, to combat anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice in the 1930s. None of this was mentioned that Columbus Day, though. Everybody was just pleased to be celebrating on a beautiful afternoon.


KENNEDY: Ladies and gentlemen, I want to ask you - if you have a few minutes - if you could come up to the dining room upstairs. We just have some coffee and...

MONDELLO: This is the part that my mom was excited about. The invitation had mentioned a reception with Mrs. Kennedy, which she figured was as close as we'd ever get to Camelot. So we trooped upstairs while the president went to his office. I remember a table filled with tiny cakes - barely a mouthful each - and Secret Service guys watching me and my brother and sister like hawks, probably so we wouldn't swipe spoons that said White House on them.

Mrs. Kennedy didn't show. So after a while, we headed off across the White House lawn to our car, only to be stopped halfway across by a familiar voice behind us: The president, now in shirt-sleeves. I've escaped, he grinned at Dad, ducked out a side door.

We looked back and sure enough, Secret Service agents came rushing out, panicked until they spotted him. And I, at 14 on the White House lawn, got to shake the president's hand. He was about my dad's age, but looked older close-up, skin crinkled and lined.

Most of the other details of that day faded from my memory long ago, at least until NPR's librarians found the tapes recently, tapes that reminded me of JFK's offhand grace, which I now recognize as a politician's gift, and the casual way that in the Rose Garden on that Columbus Day he had made everything so upbeat and hopeful, with the White House a safe harbor we might all return to.


KENNEDY: Father, why don't you come up and say the final prayer on this, then we'll have "The Star-Spangled Banner," and then we'll tell you how welcome you all are, how delighted we are. And we're going to do this every year.

MONDELLO: That was not to be. Six weeks later, he was gone, claimed by an assassin's bullet. And that American voyage that to my young eyes had briefly promised a glimpse of Camelot, that first voyage, always the most difficult, got a lot harder.

I'm Bob Mondello.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.


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