With the possible exception of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the grave of President John F. Kennedy is by far the most visited grave in Arlington; the greater Washington area; and I'd be hard pressed to deny the United States as a whole. By a back of the envelope calculation, I personally have escorted several thousand visitors there myself, and the site never fails to impose an almost crushing sense of the tragedy of November 1963.
I wonder often what future generations will think of when they come here. The Legend of Camelot is fading into history, especially as the generation who comprised it and those who were moved by it go to thier eternal rest. My generation doesn't have the personal connection to JFK that made his untimely death so shocking and tragic, but we have the reminiscences of our parents and the first hand accounts of "where you were when you heard the news".
But as I take these eighth graders through, it's no more immediate or real to them than World War II is to me. It's become something else to learn about in history, something their grandparents talk about, and an interesting story. And to a certain extent, what is there to remember? President Kennedy served just two and a half years, brought new and innovative viewpoints to the White House but pushed through few major pieces of legislation. His foreign policy had it's ups and downs, with highlights like the Test Ban Treaty and the Cuban Missile Crisis balanced with setbacks such as Bay of Pigs and the U-2 incident. Arguably, much of President Johnson's successful Great Society program (not to mention landmark Civil Rights legislation) was the successful conclusion of what JFK started, but when you strip the youthful "vigah" way, what do you have? To put it another way, in a hundred years will JFK be another Andrew Jackson or Grover Cleavland, important and influential Presidents who aren't having their heads carved in stone in South Dakota?
If I'm wrong, and I often am, it will in no small part be due to the incredible design and location of President Kennedy's final resting place. The simple grandeur and significant location focus your attention on JFK, in a way I've never seen in any other grave around the world. Where once people came to simply pay their respects to Kennedy, I think in time the process will reverse itself, with visitors who don't "know" the President leaving with a connection they did not bring with them.
Let's talk about why he's here, just across the river from Washington, DC in Arlington National Cemetery. It's a question I always took for granted, but is glaring in retrospect. Most Presidents have the luxury of dying quietly at home, many years after they've retired (or been retired by the voters). Few Presidents love DC, and most seem happy to go home. Naturally, they are laid to rest where they feel connected to. The few buried in the area, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, happened to make their home in Washington after their Presidency and were quietly laid to rest here. Even the Presidents that died in office are normally returned home to be with the people who loved them most, politically and personally.
So why not Kennedy? It was not an obvious choice. The assumption following his death was that he would be buried at the family plot in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts, near Boston. The Associated Press announced on Nov. 22nd that "There's nothing definite yet on the funeral, but it's understood it will be in Boston." The Navy even prepared a destroyer to take the remains to Boston. However, Jacqueline Kennedy asked that he be buried in Arlington, near the nation's capital noting that "he belongs to the people". The decision was simply made, and no one would be inappropriate enough at the time to ask her why, but there is much discussion as to why Jackie preferred Arlington. Some felt that she wanted to give the nation a public site for their grief, and other have remarked that she didn't want to give control of her husband back to his family. The truth of "why" will never really be known, but we can say that the choice of Arlington, and the specific location selected, are well in keeping with what we expect for a lady whose sense of style may well outlive us all.
Within Arlington, a few areas were discussed, such as Dewey Circle and near the Maine Memorial, before the current location was picked. In retrospect, it is particularly fitting. Just down the hill from Arlington House, it lies on the axis of the Robert E. Lee mansion and the Lincoln Memorial, completed by the Memorial Bridge. The Bridge, besides it's practical utility, symbolizes the reunification of the country following the Civil War by symbolically connecting the two great sites. In one of life's great irony's, President Kennedy had been just a few feet away from his future grave a few weeks before on Veteran's Day, when he heard about that story from Park Service tour guide Paul Fuqua. He was struck by it, and after contemplated the view for a few moments, remarked to Mr. Fuqua that he "could stay here forever."
Jackie also picked the signature marker for her husband's grave, the Eternal Flame. It was an idea that she had seen earlier, in France, most notably on the Kennedy's celebrated 1961 trip, where the President famously remarked that he was the guy that "accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." While there, they had laid a wreath at the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marked by, of course, an eternal flame.
Eternal flames do not grow on trees however, and the Army Corps of Engineers was given the task. With less than 24 hours notice, they managed to design, build, and install an ad hoc "eternal flame", that managed to stay lit until a permanent one could be built. Well, almost eternal. At one point a Catholic schoolgirl poured, rather than sprinkled, holy water on the tomb before a quick thinking guard re-lit the flame with his lighter. Any spiritual insights will be left to the viewer before we move on.
As I alluded to, the grave site that you see today is not the original one. But for now, we'll leave the President in peace and come back tomorrow where we'll discuss how the grave has changed and the other members of his family buried in this location.