Last week, I spoke at the National Archives to mark the completion of a unique project to preserve the most important records of President John F. Kennedy in a digital format. This project will enable scholars, students, and ordinary Americans to access the most fascinating documents and records of a presidency which had profound impact on who we are as a Nation. AT&T was honored to provide both dollars and technical capabilities to help bring to life what is now the largest online digitized Presidential archive. But this is one of those rare and special events where a corporate honor was also a very personal and emotional experience.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge history buff. I’ve been known to spend many an hour combing through used book stores, feeling irrational joy when I find some out-of-print work. And I’d have to admit that eyes often (ok, usually) roll in meetings when I can’t resist some obscure historical analogy. Even in my White House days, the advance staff would usually ask someone to keep an eye on me during Presidential trips because I was known for wandering off down the halls of palaces or plazas, distracted by anything that looked really old. I’ve also, maybe perversely, taken my senior team on a field trip to Gettysburg, not for the military study but instead for the leadership lessons one can find there. Sure, history is escapism of a sort. But it’s escapism with life lessons if we understand and apply them.
History at its best can also give us an emotional connection. Events, after all, are really about people, and the best historians bring those people alive so we can relate to them. For late postwar baby-boomers like me, that emotional attachment is profound when it comes to President Kennedy. I was 8 years old when I nominated him in my second grade mock election (he won, narrowly, just like in the real thing). And I was 11 when I got off the school bus and heard that he had been killed. Three short years, but they affected all of us in ways hard to explain today, even to my own kids. President Kennedy was a born leader– that’s so clear now in hindsight. But at the time, Americans saw his leadership qualities develop as we watched, and in a most dangerous time. The stakes were high and the consequences of misjudgment were unprecedented. But we came to trust him with our lives and our country’s future because he earned it.
We saw JFK’s humor and optimism, but also his courage and conviction. He had a true intellect, yet kept his ego firmly in check. He understood politics, but no one doubted that his biggest decisions put country first. He had studied history as a boy, and found himself applying its lessons as a President. His presidency was, to my generation, at once a tragedy and an inspiration. And an ideal toward which we could aspire. To me, like so many, that led to an interest in politics and government – and history – which has never abated. It was a big reason for my career path, and it’s a big reason why I still have an idealistic streak about public service and the Presidency. And why I still pinch myself that I could grow up and serve two presidents who both met the ideals of my youth.
So, that’s why last Thursday’s event to launch the digital archive for the Kennedy Library was such a personal treat. We saw stunning samples of the archivists’ and technologists’ work. Through their magic, President Kennedy was there again, radiating wit and charm, demonstrating intellect and command, showing his humanity and his moments of doubt. And his daughter Caroline was there too, both as a 5-year-old, and as a warm, sincere and dedicated person who carries well so many of her parents’ finest qualities.
Way back in 1989, President George H.W. Bush asked me to help with the building and running of his Presidential Library. I’m now in Year 22 of that fabulous experience. It has involved me with the National Archives Foundation – and people like David McCullough and Ken Burns – as well as membership on the Advisory Committee on Presidential Libraries with people like Caroline Kennedy, David Eisenhower, and many other extraordinary individuals. For a history buff, this is far more of a blessing than I deserve. But there is serious and important work behind all of this performed by unsung heroes and heroines who do far more than sit on a committee. They work to preserve, and bring alive, the past so that we, and coming generations, can learn and draw lessons from it. It is their art we saw on display last week with the Kennedy digital archive.
I’d encourage anyone reading this to experience their work. You can start by checking out the new digital archive of the Kennedy Library. Try pulling up the taped phone call between President Kennedy and former President Eisenhower on October 22, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I dare you not to be fascinated, and proud of both men. And if that sample draws you into more study of this exceptional and fascinating President…well, maybe then you’ll understand why I have a bust of JFK by the door to my office, where I can see it every morning and be reminded that, as important as the day’s issues seem, there are truly more important things.