EDWARD M. KENNEDY: These buildings that bear his name will be his city upon his hill.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: When Senator Edward M. Kennedy spoke at the dedication of the JFK Library almost 40 years ago, it established an archive and museum where visitors and researchers from across the globe could learn about President Kennedy's life and legacy.
MATT PORTER: Since then, six directors have been in charge of stewarding the more than 10 million documents, recordings, and artifacts housed inside. Alan Price, who worked in Barack Obama's administration, is the latest director after starting the job last November. We'll speak with him about his affinity for President Kennedy and his hopes for the future of the library on this week's episode of JFK35.
MATT PORTER: Welcome to this week's episode of JFK 35. I'm Matt Porter.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And I'm Jamie Richardson. In this episode, we're going to look inward at a bit of the history and purpose of the JFK Library, which will be turning 40 later this year.
MATT PORTER: In those four decades, the library has had six different directors, including its most recent director, Alan Price, who we'll speak with later on the show.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: But first, let's take a trip back through time and hear a few words from President Jimmy Carter, who spoke at the library's dedication on October 20, 1979.
JIMMY CARTER: Like a great cathedral, this building was a long time coming. But it more than justifies a wait. Its grace and its dignity are, I hope and believe, worthy of the man whose memory it will nurture.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: On that day, the JFK Library was opened as the sixth presidential library in the National Archives Presidential Library System. The library system was started by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 as a way to preserve the papers and other artifacts from his administration. President Truman followed suit. And in 1955, Congress passed a law establishing a privately funded but federally maintained Presidential Library System.
Nonprofit foundations build the libraries. And then they're transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA. NARA's the same agency in charge of preserving the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution. So they clearly have some really great stuff there.
MATT PORTER: Roosevelt's presidential library in Hyde Park, New York was the first to open in 1941. Every president since Herbert Hoover has since had a library run by the federal government, although this might be changing with President Obama's proposed presidential center. Before NARA, presidents were free to release or not release their documents as they wished. In some cases, former presidents or their families even purposely destroyed documents from their time in office. The Presidential Library System ensures that the complete records of each president will be preserved in perpetuity and be made available to the public. In addition to the archives, the libraries also have museums for everyone to learn more about each president and their administration.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And we're happy to introduce the latest custodian of everything contained within the JFK Library, Alan Price. Alan comes to us from his most recent position as president of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Before that, he was a member of President Obama's administration where he served in a number of capacities, including associate director of management at the Peace Corps.
MATT PORTER: And before his time in federal service, Alan served in several leadership posts outside of government, including at the Harvard Business School's Global Leadership Initiative and what is now Eversource Energy. Alan, thank you for joining us.
ALAN PRICE: Thank you. It's great to be here.
MATT PORTER: Alan, it's really great to have you. I think you've been on the job for a few months. First, just tell us what kind of brought you to the library. What intrigued you to apply for this job and be here to begin with?
ALAN PRICE: Well, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has been such an amazing and iconic institution for so long. I've been a big fan for many, many years. And when I saw the opportunity, I jumped at it. It was very exciting. My wife and I were both immediately intrigued by the possibilities of how can we be a part of this institution and make sure this institution is part of a stronger Boston, a stronger New England, and a stronger part of the national legacy of President Kennedy.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And what have been your initial impressions of the library so far as you're a few months in?
ALAN PRICE: Well, in addition to an extraordinary staff and an extraordinary mission, it's somewhat amazing that this building, officially dedicated in 1979, still holds up as amazing. It does not feel dated at all. The contrast between the architectural styles all present in this one building have kept it at the front edge, the leading edge of modern buildings even though it's been around a while.
MATT PORTER: Did you speak to any of predecessors as you've taken this job? Have you spoken to other directors? What has sort of been the transition like for you coming here to the library?
ALAN PRICE: One of the most joyful aspects of this job is that every prior library director reached out and connected with me to give me a much fuller sense of the history of the institution. I heard a quote many years ago that we are all born in the middle of stories. The story started a long time before we arrived, will continue a long time after we're gone. And those conversations with the prior directors helped me appreciate the stream of history that I was stepping into so that I could more appropriately recognize that past and create a stronger future.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And you worked for the Peace Corps previously, which was an early Kennedy administration initiative. And how does experience influence your work here as how you kind of see the library?
ALAN PRICE: To have seen firsthand how the Kennedy vision continues to live on in the joyful service and often difficult service of Peace Corps volunteers around the globe and having been a part of supporting that effort, it's extraordinary that his vision that we could take the best minds and that call to service and people really would want to serve and they continue to serve in extraordinary numbers, and it would shape a lifetime of service, that that vision continues to live today and has tremendous bipartisan support and global support.
MATT PORTER: One thing that when people come here to the library, they all sort of have their favorite Kennedy moment, their Kennedy speech or quote. What about you? Do you have a favorite Kennedy speech that inspires you or quote that sort of resonates with you?
ALAN PRICE: If I could allow myself two.
MATT PORTER: OK.
ALAN PRICE: One of the joys of this role is wherever I go, if I say what I do-- I'm director at the library here-- everybody comes up to me with their favorite John F. Kennedy story or their favorite Bobby story or their favorite Ted story. It's just extraordinary. And I just heard one the other day of someone who said, yes, I sailed on the Victura with John F. Kennedy.
He would have his crew needs. And when he was young, he would come crew on the Victura. And so many people in New England and globally have their personal connection to the campaign or Kennedy himself. That's phenomenal.
One of my favorites continues to be his inaugural address. I just think that that call to service-- ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. He said he was going to set that tone. He wasn't going to make a lot of promises. But he was going to put America to work to make a stronger nation.
He was true to that vision. And people continue to respond to that call to service. And I think America and the world are better for it.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And so we're here in the Presidential Library, which is kind of a unique facility in our nation's sort of organization of the presidency. So what is so important about a presidential library? We have-- well, I guess I'll let you answer that part.
ALAN PRICE: Presidential libraries are incredibly important. They are not only tremendous from a civics education point of view, but from a fundamental belief that democracy is strengthened by access to the records and that the archives should preserve for future generations the history of what happened in an administration and in the nation and the world at that time so that not only researchers, but every citizen can understand that heritage and use that to inform their continued engagement. And I would add to that a notion of not that presidents are perfect-- none of them are.
So you get to see the learning curve of a president, their strengths and weaknesses, their legacy and their foibles. But I think when you take into account the full perspective of a particular administration, you have the opportunity to make stronger administrations and a stronger country over time. And whether it's middle school classes who are getting an education here or postgraduate dissertations that are being worked on here, I think it strengthens the nation.
MATT PORTER: This library is sort of a hub for so much that goes on. There are various events that happen here throughout the year. In your brief tenure, people that you've seen coming in-- whether they're guests, whether they're coming for events or forums-- how have you seen this library as a cultural institution for Boston and the citizens around here?
ALAN PRICE: So proud to be part of the cultural legacy of the Boston area, as Kennedy himself was a huge proponent of the arts and culture, as was Mrs. Kennedy in their ability to strengthen a democracy and strengthen a nation and promote economic development and be part of what makes a city vibrant. You can't have economic development without a cultural base to a city in large measure. So these are all very much intertwined.
And to the extent we can use this library as a place to make sure that the many brilliant minds who were educated here want to stay here, we're happy to be part of that cultural fabric of the city. And I also think that when corporations are thinking about where are we going to host an event that will have not only a beautiful venue, but a place to inspire us to be more bold, to be more innovative, to reach farther than we had reached before, I think this setting-- perhaps in part, President Kennedy's call to go to the moon-- is a perfect example of we can do things that we imagine even though others tell us it's impossible.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Actually, that's a perfect segue to our next question. We do have the anniversary of the moon landing, the 50th, coming up in July. And we also have the 40th anniversary of the library's opening itself. Can you give us any sort of insight of what might be happening here? How are we celebrating these two milestones at the library?
ALAN PRICE: We'll have a lot of programming through the spring and summer to celebrate the anniversary of the Apollo 11. And we will also have a tremendous number of events on July 20, the actual anniversary date. Among those events, we will have a bunch of current and former astronauts here. We will have corporate execs. We'll talk about the past, the present, and the future of space exploration. We'll have children's programming, family programming.
But we'll also have a lot of adult programming so that entrepreneurs who are considering working in the space area will be able to network with one another. We hope to be part of that future of space and be a catalyst towards that. But the memory of that iconic launch and how it seemed so impossible, but Kennedy said we will go to the moon in 10 years, and we went even faster than that-- it is worth remembering that this nation can put its mind towards anything, whether it's any area of technology or going into space or just anything that our competitive drive-- because that was a lot of it for President Kennedy-- that anything that our competitive drive pushes us to do.
MATT PORTER: And moving beyond the anniversaries this year, what, if anything, can you tell us about your plans or things that you'd like to see happen here at the library or grow here at the library?
ALAN PRICE: I would like to tap into all of the collections we have. We have the President Kennedy collection and along with that the Mrs. Kennedy collection. But we also have Robert Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's papers, and the collections of Ernest Hemingway. And we're working now on a 10-year schedule of what exhibits might look like and what programming might look like and how can we push forward more quickly, accelerate the digitization of the archival records, and make those available to the public in new ways? How can we just capitalize on what we have and bring it to life more broadly, more richly?
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And then also since you've been here, as you've sort of had access to the collections and the papers and programming and everything, is there anything that you've learned about President Kennedy that has surprised you or intrigued you that you didn't realize before?
ALAN PRICE: I never really appreciated his sense of humor. And I've enjoyed that tremendously. There is a moment where he gives a birthday gift to Dave Powers. And it's inscribed with a quote that's something like this, which is there are only three things that are real-- God, human folly, and laughter. And the first two are too mysterious for us to fully understand. So let us set our intentions on more of the laughter.
And I just thought it was a great quote. He was so eloquent, but focusing on the fact that we are humans. And so many people who connected with them, they were able to transcend state-to-state limitations of what relationships can be and form real human bonds-- both the president and Mrs. Kennedy-- form real human bonds, which I think advanced not just our diplomatic status in the world. But the true effort towards world peace is built at a human level. And I think his sense of humor was somewhat key to that.
MATT PORTER: Most people now weren't alive when President Kennedy was president. So how do you find making President Kennedy relevant for people today? How do you see President Kennedy and his legacy as still being so relevant today as it was in the 1960s?
ALAN PRICE: I think when people look either in the current context or recent context and they look for examples of what is possible in the role of president and what is possible for the nation, I think President Kennedy is an extraordinary example of how we can overcome our differences and focus on a common goal. And though budget squabbles happen all the time in administrations and will always happen, I think President Kennedy would be baffled by this notion that we would shut the government as a response, because that doesn't strengthen the nation. I think current politicians on both sides of the aisle could look at that as a terrific example of there are just other options when you're faced with budget squabbles.
I think that there's always the possibility that conflicts will happen. But if we're really focused on peace, how do we navigate towards peace in the face of these conflicts? I think he provides tremendous examples there.
I also think that he had tremendous campaigning ideas and strategies. And I'd love to do an exhibit at some point on the Kennedy campaign in such a way that it would inform and inspire other people to run for office in new and creative ways, though I don't think Kennedy would have envisioned the digital reality that many people are using today.
MATT PORTER: Lastly, I want to-- you worked in the administration for President Barack Obama, who came here in 2017, receiving the Profile in Courage Award. And one thing that President Kennedy's grandson, Jack Schlossberg, mentioned was the similarities between sort of the youth movement in President Obama's administration and sort of what we saw with President Kennedy. Do you agree? Or did you feel when you were in the Obama administration that there was sort of a Kennedy-esque or sort of a similar feeling to what was happening in the 1960s?
ALAN PRICE: There are similarities. I think that nothing could have given me more pride than serving in the administration of the 44th president. And it's been a great delight to now feel like I served the administration of the 35th president. It's a great thing to serve one president. To serve two is extraordinary.
I think there are similar or there are parallels in terms of the youth involvement and appeal. I also think that though they may have in many ways appealed to young people, it is the strength of their rhetoric, which is not solely the possession of a young person. And I think that there are other candidates currently and in the past who have mobilized youth with their rhetoric.
And I think there's something to be learned there for any politician, that there are ways that you can deal with the practical realities and challenges of the office and have good, concrete policy agendas. But you can do that in a way that it mobilizes, engages, and inspires, or you can do that in a way that just feels like the grownups in Charlie Brown-- womp, womp, womp, womp, womp. And I think that many people forget that the role of Commander in Chief has a symbolic and inspirational potential that can be tapped.
MATT PORTER: Alan, thank you very much for sitting down with us. We hope that we'll have you on many more times to talk about what's going on at the library. Thank you for sitting with us. And we do hope that this year goes really well for you.
ALAN PRICE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Thank you.
ALAN PRICE: Appreciate it.
MATT PORTER: Take care.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: So it was great to talk to Alan today about the role of the JFK Library in Boston and the role it has within the Presidential Library System writ large. I think a lot of people-- they hear library, and they think we're just-- like, you come here and you take out a book. But that's not quite the case. And I think it's easy for people to have no idea what a presidential library actually is. So to get that insight was really great.
MATT PORTER: Exactly. And you know, I think with a moment to talk about presidential libraries, they're so important. You think about the last 14 presidents now, we have their records neatly and orderly stored and preserved. And I still can't believe that before the Presidential Library System, we had times where sometimes the president and/or his family for either embarrassment or for whatever reason would decide to destroy documents that would tell us more about those presidents and who they were.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yeah, it's such a shame to have such a gap in the history of the presidential record. And if I'm understanding this correctly, because the Presidential Library System is ever evolving and a little bit confusing if you don't quite know it back to front, but I believe up until Nixon's administration that it was still sort of a courtesy that the presidents would donate their papers to the national government. It wasn't expected. And Nixon changed all that. And that's the ever evolving way we live.
MATT PORTER: Way to go, Nixon, there.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yes, thank you.
MATT PORTER: There we go. The National Archives-- you know, I've been now working here for three years, almost three years. And they just play such an important role. These are people who are unseen, but doing a lot of good work and making sure that when the historians come to look and examine what exactly happened decades earlier, that they have access to the primary source documents that will give them hopefully the unfettered truth. And it will allow us to understand our history better.
And again, I wish that we had more presidential libraries from the period before Roosevelt, but very thankful for what we do have. And of course, there are libraries that are before Herbert Hoover. Those are often run by states and other people. And they're doing a great job as well. But it's really nice to know going forward that NARA is here and the archivists are working and doing their best to make sure that when it comes time to look back, that the records are there.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yeah, and it's important to note that also it's not just for-- the presidential libraries don't just exist just for historians or sort of mega famous-- the Robert Caros and other very famous historians, but it's for everybody. We have students who come from middle school, high schoolers. You listening to this podcast could come with sort of a question. And the archivist can help you figure out what would be relevant for you to look at.
It's such an amazing and important job that they do that it's-- we're lucky to have all these papers. And here at the library, we have a lot of them digitized, which is another amazing feat that I think is so important and wonderful and great for me and my job here.
MATT PORTER: And my job as working with the press and also taking in a lot of public requests, people are asking, can you tell me what happened on this date? Or there are times some of the most rewarding ones are someone says, I have a picture. And I just want to know-- it's President Kennedy. It's my father. And there's somebody standing next to him. And I don't know who he is.
And there was one case where that happened. And it was actually Al Gore's father that was standing next to the gentleman's father. And that was found by our wonderful research archivists.
And personally, I have my own story where my mother wrote a letter to President Kennedy. And it turned out that that letter was preserved. So that was a really nice thing to offer my mom, a letter she wrote when she was eight. And we found it.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: That's wonderful.
MATT PORTER: So it's an amazing thing here at the Archives. And it is, like you said, for everybody. It's for the public. And they do a great job. And I think Alan's going to do a good job continuing to steward that.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yeah, this is such an exciting period for us. 40th anniversary, new director, lots of fun things happening, exciting things.
MATT PORTER: Big anniversary of the moon landing, which of course we played a small role.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yes. And if we've piqued your interest through this conversation at all or this episode about what a presidential library is or what the system is like or the history of the JFK Library, we'll have some links on the podcast episode page on our websites for you to check out.
MATT PORTER: And special thanks to Alan Price for being with us today. And we certainly look forward to seeing his influence on the library going forward. And thank you for listening to this episode of JFK35.
Visit our podcast page at JFKLibrary.org/JFK35 where, again, Jamie mentioned we'll have more information on the topic of libraries mentioned in this episode. And if you have questions or story ideas, please email us at JFK35pod@JFKLFoundation.org or tweet us at @JFKLibrary using the hashtag #JFK35. And you can also follow the library on Facebook and Instagram.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: And if you liked what you heard today, please consider subscribing to our podcast or leaving us a review wherever you get your podcasts. We're taking an extra week off. So we'll see you again in three weeks in mid-April for another new episode. Thanks for listening and have a great week.