1985 Tribute by President Reagan

Over the years members of the Kennedy family have been moved by the great acts of personal kindness that President and Mrs. Reagan have shown them and the Kennedy Presidential Library. In 1981, President Reagan hosted President Kennedy's mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, at the White House, an event that marked her first visit to the Executive Mansion since her son served as president. And on June 24, 1985, President and Mrs. Reagan joined the Kennedy family at the home of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in McLean, VA to help the Kennedy Library Foundation create an endowment for support of the Kennedy Presidential Library. The following are the remarks delivered by President Reagan that evening.  

Remarks of President Ronald Reagan
McLean, VA.
June 24, 1985

I was very pleased a few months ago when Caroline and John came to see me and ask for our support in helping the library. I thought afterwards what fine young people they are and what a fine testament they are to their mother and father. It was obvious to me that they care deeply about their father and his memory - but I was also struck by how much they care about history. They felt strongly that all of us must take care to preserve it, protect it and hand it down for future sailors on the seas of scholarship.

They're right, of course. History has its claims, and there's nothing so invigorating as the truth. In this case, a good deal of truth resides in a strikingly sculpted library that contains the accumulated documents, recollections, diaries and oral histories of the New Frontier.

But I must confess that ever since Caroline and John came by I have found myself thinking not so much about the John F. Kennedy Library as about the man himself, and what his life meant to our country and our times, particularly to the history of this century.

It always seemed to me that he was a man of the most interesting contradictions, very American contradictions. We know from his many friends and colleagues - we know in part from the testimony available at the library - that he was self-deprecating yet proud, ironic yet easily moved, highly literary yet utterly at home with the common speech of the ordinary man. He was a writer who could expound with ease on the moral forces that shaped John Calhoun's political philosophy; on the other hand, he possessed a most delicate and refined appreciation for Boston's political wards and the characters who inhabited it. He could cuss a blue streak but then, he'd been a sailor.

He loved history and approached it as both romantic and realist. He could quote Stephen Vincent Benet on General Lee's Army -

The aide de camp knew certain lines of Greek
and other such unnecessary things; ...
That are good for peace
but are not deemed so serviceable for war...

And he could sum up a current "Statesman" with an earthy epithet that could leave his audience weak with laughter. One sensed that he loved mankind as it was, in spite of itself, and that he had little patience with those who would perfect what was really not meant to be perfect.

As a leader, as a president, he seemed to have a good hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices. He had written a book as a very young man about why the world slept as Hitler marched on; and he understood the tension between good and evil in the history of man - understood, indeed, that much of the history of man can be seen in the constant working out of that tension. He knew that the United States had adversaries, real adversaries, and they weren't about to be put off by soft reason and good intentions. He tried always to be strong with them, and shrewd. He wanted our defense system to be unsurpassed; he cared that his country would be safe.

He was a patriot who summoned patriotism from the heart of a sated country. It is a matter of pride to me that so many men and women who were inspired by his bracing vision and moved by his call to "ask not ..." serve now in the White House doing the business of government.

Which is not to say I supported John Kennedy when he ran for president, because I didn't. I was for the other fellow. But you know, it's true: when the battle's over and the ground is cooled, well, it's then that you seethe opposing general's valor.

He would have understood. He was fiercely, happily partisan, and his political fights were tough - no quarter asked and none given. But he gave as good as he got, and you could see that he loved the battle.

Everything we saw him do seemed to betray a huge enjoyment of life; he seemed to grasp from the beginning that life is one fast moving train, and you have to jump aboard and hold on to your hat and relish the sweep of the wind as it rushes by. You have to enjoy the journey, it's unfaithful not to. I think that's how his country remembers him, in his joy. And it was a joy he knew how to communicate. He knew that life is rich with possibilities, and he believed in opportunity, growth and action.

And when he died, when that comet disappeared over the continent, a whole nation grieved and would not forget. A tailor in New York put up a sign on the door - "Closed because of a death in the family." That sadness was not confined to us. "They cried the rain down that night," said a journalist in Europe. They put his picture up in huts in Brazil and tents in the Congo, in offices in Dublin and Warsaw. That was some of what he did for his country, for when they honored him they were honoring someone essentially, quintessentially, completely American. When they honored John Kennedy, they honored the nation whose virtues, genius - and contradictions -he so fully reflected.

Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable. Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy's death, five presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then, and his thousand days in the White House.

And sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school, and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book: Nothing is ever lost in that great house; some music plays on.

I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, "And another thing Eleanor!" Turn down a hall and you can hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, "Bully! Absolutely ripping!" Walk softly now and you're drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter.

I don't know if this is true…but it's a story I've been told. And it's not a bad one, because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. A life given in service to one's country is a living that never dies.

History is not only made by people, it is people. And so, history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be - as heroic as you are.

And there is where I will end my remarks on this lovely evening, except to add that I know the John F. Kennedy Library is the only presidential library without a full endowment. Nancy and I salute you, Caroline and John. in your efforts to permanently endow the library. You have our support and admiration for what you are doing.