Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Modern Romance of JFK.

Jump forward another 150 years and a new generation of leaders were making waves in Boston. John 'Honey Fitz' Fitzgerald, the smooth talking son of Irish immigrants became, just a generation after his parents fled the potato famine, the first Catholic mayor of Boston. To solidify his position he encouraged his eldest daughter Rose to marry Joe, the son of Patrick Kennedy, one of his democratic rivals. Their second son John Fitzgerald Kennedy would, with the able assistance of his glamorous wife Jackie and two younger brothers, Bobby and Teddy, go on to reinvent politics for the charismatic media age.

We spent the morning investigating the appeal at the JFK Presidential Library, a beautiful concrete and glass building overlooking Dorchester bay, south of the city centre.

The Kennedy's throw a long shadow over Eastern Massachusetts. They educated themselves at Harvard, cut their political teeth in Boston, and regenerated at their compound at Hyannisport fifty miles South of here on Cape Cod.

The museum itself is fascinating, particularly in documenting the JFK's early life as the son of an ambassador. Initially he saw himself as an academic and teacher, developing a private intellectual life in the slip stream of elder brother Joseph Jnr's political ambition. It was Joe's death in an air crash towards the end of the war that catapulted John into the limelight, firstly as a serving an East Boston district in the House of Representatives, then as Senator for Massachusetts, before finally receiving the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1960.

Kennedy's fluent rhetoric was remarkable, from his clipped, polite diplomacy as a young congressman, to his towering inaugural speech, which more than any other moment captured the excitement of a new generation standing on the brink of progressive change. The black and white images of formal austerity and serious patricians, flushed out in favour of technicolour footage of swimming parties and families. It's this persuasive image of the leader as home maker that still pervades.

For all the style Kennedy remained deeply affected by the history of New England. His speeches drew heavily on the brave, uncertain sea journeys of both the Pilgrim fathers and his Irish ancestors, finding parallels between their voyages across the Atlantic to an strange land with his own dreams of space exploration. His was a life created on the edge. America was always at his back but, like so many of those who grow up by the ocean, he couldn't help but look the other way and wonder what awaited on the far shore. Freedom embodied as an escape towards the unknown.

We headed back into town and took a less treacherous boat trip, an early afternoon glide on the famous swan boats in the public gardens - a Boston institution - before heading back to the North End to take a more detailed look at some of the monuments in the Old North Church and Copp's Hill.

 The day ended down the hill in the chaotic glory of the Pizzeria Regina where huge plates of gorgeously stacked pizza and ice cold local beer are passed over head into the same wooden booths that have housed customers since the 1940s. Some things pull you home.