A Liberal Irish Catholic Portlander's Perspective On:
High Hopes The Journey of John F Kennedy.
by Tessa Dansie
On this cool November morning I found myself walking in Portland’s Cultural District amongst the golden and umber leaves that fall all about me on the sidewalk leading to the Oregon Historical Society. I am on my way to High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy. I decided to come alone, to absorb the exhibit and attempt to capture it with a meditative mind.
The rain fell soft, making the air smell clean. I took a deep breath and drank in the aroma. As walked, my mind rested on something Marcus Aurelius said: “In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful.”
JFK’s fame may have been doubtful due to the anti-Catholic sentiment of his time, his faith making him weak in terms of presidential viability. Folks felt they might be electing a president who was the Pinocchio to the Pope’s Stromboli. His liberal ideas about equality and social justice were an extension of his Catholic education, and much of that moral compass was crafted by the Catholic Church, so this was an understandable concern given that the country had never elected an Catholic president.
To my eye, he turned out to be much more liberal than the Pope. A newspaper article notes that southerners hope he will soften his liberal language.
As I entered High Hopes, my entry is free due to the address on my drivers licence, I am grateful. Entry to the exhibit on it’s last days in Portland is also free to military families along with Portlanders. Liberal Portland loving them some Jack Kennedy was just how I wanted to spend this drizzly grey day, I find myself falling in love with this city all over again.
Soon, I realized that capturing this exhibit in it’s entirety was going to be akin to capturing the Portland rain in my palm and saving it in my pocket for later. No matter how hard I tried, the secret of it’s magic was ephemeral. I felt my father walking with me, the Irish Catholic Navy man. He loved John and his little brother Bobby. He would speak with much pride about how we Irish Catholics could be proud of them, and how they fought for the poor, the voiceless, the oppressed and then how they were killed on their journey towards justice. He would speak of traveling the world and observing altars with JFK and RFK right next to the Virgin Mary. I was born the October of ‘69 after the death of RFK in June of ‘68, this subject was fresh and topical upon my arrival to the world.
On my first visit to this exhibit with my husband and children, the very kind docent told an over excited me that absolutely no pictures would be allowed! I enjoyed the visit, but as I thought about it afterwards, once was not enough.
I remembered about how I had cried at the rocking chair, watching my son bend his head and pray for JFK. How my family circled that piece of his personal history, prayed the rosary for him and thanked him for his service. The sign next to the rocking chair said “do not touch!” So, my very wise daughter gave it a sniff, and said “Look Ma, it’s smells like the beach, and history all rolled into one cool rocking chair!” On my second visit as I stood looking at the rocking chair that smells of the beach and history according to my daughter, a new docent came by and politely mentioned to me that it would be a bad idea to climb in the rocking chair no matter how inviting it might be. I assured him that I would do no such a thing. He laughed and said, “oh yeah, well just yesterday we had to ask a person to get out of it.” This was shocking to say the least.
I moved along to assure the docent I was not intent on sitting a spell in the president’s chair.
As I do, I notice an interoffice memo to JFK that says:
"Robert White called to say that he wanted to know if Jack was bringing his NEA rocking chair to the White House."
Next to it a letter from JFK, his response is epic!
"Whither I goest- it goest!" August of 1960.
The rocking chair NEA referred to was the chair of his father Joseph P. Kennedy.
Wandering through the exhibit I find myself smiling at a picture of JFK in 1960 with three nuns in full habit at Marycrest High School, here in Oregon, with his famously large grin and purely enchanted looks on the faces of the nuns. His charm not lost on them.
This exhibit doesn’t let you loose contact with the realities of the time, and the cultural unconscious. It looks at the president as a boy, a brother, a man, a husband, a father, a politician, a resolute leader, and icon.
I think many people may not want to reflect on this subject because of its weight and melancholy reality. This exhibit addresses the tragedy of John’s death, but it does not dwell there. Visitors are greeted by an old t.v. and Walter Cronkite saying the words that changed our nation forever.
I observed elementary age school children fascinated by this piece of American history. I notice one boy whose hand was held by an elder woman who leaned down to whisper in his ear: “I remember that day, it was awful, I cried for months, we all did.”
On the wall to the left past the old t.v., I take in the quote from J.F.K.
"The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy."
Then I notice the intro to High Hopes from the museum:
"One hundred years after his birth and more than a half century after his shocking death, John Fitzgerald Kennedy remains a subject of endless fascination for millions of Americans. The youngest president ever elected, Kennedy's 1,037 day administration was marked by great hope but also great tension. How he reached the White House is a story of both privilege and determination. The second-born son of a rich and influential father, Kennedy's rise to power may be seen as inevitable, but his ascension was hard fought, as he persevered through severe health problems and religious discrimination. The hope and promise of Kennedy's life was cut short when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. He was 46 years old.
Through artifacts and documents from the Mark Family Collection, Shapell Manuscript Foundation, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and Oregon Historical Society collection, this collection explores the life and legacy of one of the most iconic figures in American history.
You are shown a glimpse of the boy John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the handwritten letters to his mother, which I have transcribed here:
I hope you and Dad and all the little girls including Bobby and lastly Buddy and Pal are feeling o.k.
I was weighed yesterday and lost one pound and have not grown at all. I guess the only thing wrong with me is that I am pretty tired.
I have been doing a little worrying about my studies because what he said about me starting off great and then going down sunk in. I will admit I did not work anymore than usual and I got pretty good marks. I am not doing as well in Latin having an average of about sixty so far and I don't want to flop. My marks might not be high this time.
This exhibit is a time vault in which I can peek into his childhood, his worries are palatable. I think of how he tries to downplay his anxiety about “flopping” by saying he was doing "a little worrying". I think of my own son, and how when he read these words to me, it made JFK more real to him. He saw that he had worries and concerns, that my son Alexander has. Later when we talked, Alex said that this was his favorite part. At the top of the letter there is a note signed by JFK that says “file this”.
In the reel to reel playing tucked into a small theater in the back, JFK speaks to visitors, he says it is important to preserve the possessions of the past Presidents for future generations, I think he knew how impactful it would be for a person to see that the man who became our thirty fifth President, felt fear of failure, but overcame it with faith and hope.
I watched the reel to reel of him larger than life. I laugh at the end when he says he thinks "even the girls should run for president".
In a second boyhood letter to his mother, JFK says
It is the night before exams, so I will write you wednesday.
Lots of Love,
p.s. Can I be Godfather to the Baby? ( the soon to arrive RFK)
My favorite part of the exhibit was definitely the rocking chair that sits eerily empty behind a cardboard cut out of JFK leaning on the resolute desk with his head down, bearing the weight of the nation.
Next to the chair is a painting JFK did in watercolors at Palm Beach 1955 after back surgery. As a person who struggles with chronic back pain, I understand deeply how art can be healing as an invaluable tool in placing one's mind elsewhere. The elsewhere JFK preserved is of the sea there in Palm Beach and his family home.
As I said goodbye to this amazing exhibit, and walk into the Portland rain, I whisper to myself, "Peace be with you Mr. President."
*I would also like to express my appreciation and gratitude to Kerry Tymchuk the Executive Director of The Oregon Historical Society for being so kind as to allow me to write on my laptop in the exhibit after instructions to not take photo’s (which I absolutely did not). I think this helped me to feel more deeply the weight of the exhibit by challenging myself to describe each piece. I am grateful that The Oregon Historical Society chose to honor JFK with a unique Oregon perspective, local photos and historical documents.