Members and friends of the family of John F. Kennedy:
As President of the United States, I'm indeed honored to be here on this occasion, at once so solemn and also so joyous--the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library. Like a great cathedral, this building was a long time coming. But it more than justifies the wait. Its grace and its dignity are, I hope and believe, worthy of the man whose memory it will nurture.
I never met him, but I know that John Kennedy loved politics, he loved laughter, and when the two came together, he loved that best of all.
For example, in a press conference in March 1962, when the ravages of being President were beginning to show on his face, he was asked this two-part question: "Mr. President, your brother Ted said recently on television that after seeing the cares of office on you, he wasn't sure he would ever be interested in being President." [Laughter] And the questioner continued, "I wonder if you could tell us whether, first, if you had it to do over again, you would work for the Presidency and, second, whether you can recommend this job to others?" The President replied, "Well, the answer to the first question is yes, and the second is no. I do not recommend it to others--at least for a while." [Laughter]
As you can well see, President Kennedy's wit and also his wisdom--[laughter]--is certainly as relevant today as it was then. [Laughter]
This library, this repository of facts and ideas, will feed history with a permanent record of the dreams of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and also the realization of those dreams.
In America, the records of a great political leader will not be threatened by succeeding political regimes which might fear them, because we are a nation committed not only to freedom but also to the pursuit of truth.
A library is especially fitting as a tribute to John Kennedy, for he was not only a maker of history but a writer of history as well. His fame as an author of books foretold his fame as an author of events. He said he had few apprehensions about how his Presidency would fare in history, because he planned to write that history himself.
To our loss, we will never read the books that he would have written about his own Presidency. His death impoverished not only statecraft but literature as well. But in this building behind me, the work of reflection and evaluation of what he did can now be done very well by others.
President Kennedy understood the past and respected its shaping of the future. Yet he was very much a man of his own time. The first President born in this century, he embodied the ideals of a generation as few public figures have ever done in the history of the Earth. He summoned our Nation out of complacency, and he set it on a path of excitement and hope.
The accomplishments of this thousand days, as you well know, are notable, though his Presidency was too short for him to finish all the tasks that he set for himself. We honor him not just for the things he completed but for the things he set in motion, the energies that he released, and the ideas and the ideals which he espoused.
President Kennedy took office understanding that the texture of social and economic life of our Nation and our people was changing, and that our Nation and our people would have to change with it. "Change is the law of life," he once said. "And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future." He had a vision of how America could meet and master the forces of change that he saw around him.
President Kennedy entered the White House convinced that racial and religious discrimination was morally indefensible. Later, that conviction became a passion for him, a passion that his brother Robert shared and, as his son has so well said, carried forward.
As a southerner, as a Georgian, I saw at first hand how the moral leadership of the Kennedy administration helped to undo the wrongs that grew out of our Nation's history. Today the problem of human rights in the United States is shifting from inequality of legal rights to inequality of opportunity. But the question of legal rights is not yet settled.
We are all Americans, we are all children of the same God. Racial violence and racial hatred can have no place among us in the South or in the North. The moral imperative of the Kennedy administration, indeed, still remains with us.
President Kennedy sought to move our foreign policy beyond the sterility of the cold war. He never failed to uphold liberty, and he never failed to condemn tyranny; yet he saw very clearly that the threat of nuclear destruction had created the need for mutual accommodation with our potential adversaries. He warned against the nation and a world turned into "a prison in which man awaits his executioner."
When the nuclear test ban treaty was signed in 1963, he voiced the hope-though he dared not yet voice the anticipation or expectation--that there would someday be controls on the numbers and the types of nuclear weapons. Now the SALT II treaty can redeem that hope. Its ratification will be a further fulfillment of the needs of all humanity.
President Kennedy knew that the future of freedom would be increasingly bound up with social, political, and economic justice in what has since become known as the Third World. His one bold expression of this vision was the Peace Corps, which, with its combination of activism, idealism, and adventure, summed up so many of John Kennedy's virtues.
I'm proud that this kind of commitment has now been vigorously renewed and that America once again holds out her hand to the poor, the silenced, and oppressed of every, country in the world.
Like every President who hopes to leave the world a better place because he served in it, President Kennedy chafed under the limits of his power to act. These limits on a President still exist. As he put it during his second year in office, "There are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had ever imagined." Yet, President Kennedy persisted. He became and he still remains a symbol of human aspiration. Perhaps that's why the outpouring of grief at his death had such a special quality.
On that November day, almost 16 years ago, a terrible moment was frozen in the lives of many of us here. I remember that I climbed down from the seat of a tractor, unhooked a farm trailer, and walked into my warehouse to weigh a load of grain. I was told by a group of farmers that the President had been shot. I went outside, knelt on the steps, and began to pray. In a few minutes, I learned that he had not lived. It was a grievous personal loss--my President. I wept openly for the first time in more than 10 years--for the first time since the day my own father died.
People wept in Boston and in Paris, in Atlanta and in Warsaw, in San Francisco and in New Delhi. More than anyone had realized before that day, the spirit of this young American President had taken hold of the hearts and the imaginations of countless millions of people all over the world.
During the months that followed--in civil rights, in medical care for the aged, in greater dignity for the poor, in an increase of caring for one another his vision was carried into the reality of our Nation's life with the help of a united Congress and a united people, united in grief, but also united in determination to fulfill the dreams which he had painted for us.
At the time, the tragedy in Dallas seemed an isolated convulsion of madness. But in retrospect, it appears near the beginning of a time of darkness. From Vietnam to Cambodia, from Los Angeles to Memphis, from Kent State to Watergate, the American spirit suffered under one shock after another, and the confidence of our people was deeply shaken.
The American people are good and strong. We've undertaken a solid commitment to heal those wounds, and at long last the darkness has begun to lift. I believe that America is now ready to meet the challenges of the 1980's with renewed confidence and with renewed spirit.
These challenges, of course, are not the same ones that confronted us a generation ago. The carved desk in the Oval Office which I use is the same as when John F. Kennedy sat behind it, but the problems that land on that desk are quite different.
President Kennedy was right: Change is the law of life. The world of 1980 is as different from what it was in 1960 as the world of 1960 was from that of 1940. Our means of improving the world must also be different.
After a decade of high inflation and growing oil imports, our economic cup no longer overflows. Because of inflation, fiscal restraint has become a matter of simple public duty. We can no longer rely on a rising economic tide to lift the boats of the poorest in our society. We must focus our attention and our care and our love and concern directly on them.
We have a keener appreciation of limits now--the limits of government, limits on the use of military power abroad, the limits of manipulating, without harm to ourselves, a delicate and a balanced natural environment.
We are struggling with a profound transition from a time of abundance to a time of growing scarcity in energy. We're only beginning to learn the new habits and to utilize the new technologies that will carry us to a future age of clean and renewable energy.
And we face these times when centrifugal forces in our society and in our political system as well--forces of regionalism, forces of ethnicity, of narrow economic interests, of single-issue politics--are testing the resiliency of American pluralism and of our ability to govern. But we can and we will prevail.
The problems are different; the solutions, none of them easy, are also different. But in this age of hard choices and scarce resources, the essence of President Kennedy's message--the appeal for unselfish dedication to the common good--is more urgent than it ever was. The spirit that he evoked-- the spirit of sacrifice, of patriotism, of unstinting dedication--is the same spirit that will bring us safely through the adversities that we face today. The overarching purpose of this Nation remains the same to build a just society in a secure America living at peace with the other nations of the world.
The library that we dedicate today is a symbol, above all, of that unchanging purpose. Through our study here of his words and his deeds, the service of President Kennedy will keep its high place in the hearts of many generations of America to come after us.
This library may be dedicated with the words of a poet from Tennessee, a contemporary of the President whose name the library will bear:
To those who in all times have sought the truth and have told it in their art or in their living, who died in honor...
To those who died in the high and humble knowledge of God...
(T)o those who died in sorrow, and in kindness, and in bravery; to those who died in violence suddenly...
(T)o those who died in the time of the joy of their strength...*
This library is dedicated to John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America.
NOTE: The President spoke at 11: 25 a.m. outside the library. Prior to the ceremonies, the President was given a private tour of the library.
* Excerpts from James Agee's dedication to his first book of poems, Permit Me Voyage.