Jfk's Footsteps Echo In White House

November 22, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this autumn, during a Rose Garden reception for some young people, the White House unveiled a life-size and now-famous photograph of a 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy.

So strong is the connection between President Clinton and Mr. Kennedy that the next time the White House re-creates the photograph, it would hardly seem odd if JFK, 46 when he died, was shaking hands with a grown-up Bill Clinton, 46 years old when he was inaugurated.

For a generation, Mr. Clinton's life has been touched by the Kennedy mystique. And he has reached out to touch back.

Last year, he journeyed to Mr. Kennedy's exact 1960 campaign locations, tossed a football with Al Gore to evoke the Kennedys' famed touch football games and then, the day before his inauguration, went with Kennedy family members in the early morning cold to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath of white roses at the gravesites of Jack and his brother Bobby.

"He was our president for only a thousand days, but he changed the way we think about our country, our world and our own obligations to the future," Mr. Clinton said at the re-dedication of the Kennedy Library in Boston last month.

John F. Kennedy, the second-youngest U.S. president, left work still undone when he was assassinated. Thirty years later, his spirit seems to live on in a young Democratic administration, haunting the White House grounds like a wise and welcome old ghost.

Pictures of him and his brothers are hung in various offices in the West Wing. Books about him are strewn on desks -- President Clinton took Richard Reeves' new Kennedy biography with him to Seattle -- and aides too young to remember that awful day in Dallas find themselves counseling a sitting American president about what JFK might have done.

Offices full of memories

"This is our legacy," says John D. Podesta, a top White House staffer. "Public service and moving the country forward."

Mr. Kennedy was the first president Mr. Podesta ever saw as a teen-ager living in Chicago. It was a fleeting glimpse, from the overpass above what is now the John F. Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, where his working-class Catholic father took him to see the nation's first Catholic president.

Later, Mr. Podesta would work for Mr. Kennedy's youngest brother, Edward M. Kennedy, in various political campaigns; a picture of Senator Kennedy now hangs in his office.

Mark Gearan, 37, was in grade school during the brief Kennedy presidency. "Look, I'm an Irish-Catholic from Boston. I had a little shrine in my room to him."

David R. Gergen, who was in college during in the 1960 campaign, went to Kennedy rallies in New Haven, Conn. Mr. Gergen worked as a communications expert for Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, before signing on with the Clinton administration. But the first press conferences he critiqued -- and the ones he still considers the model -- were Mr. Kennedy's.

"When I was a student at Yale, we'd drop everything to listen to his press conferences," Mr. Gergen said. "He was something."

George Stephanopoulos, the 32-year-old adviser who is personally closest to President Clinton, was not yet 3 years old when the caisson bearing Mr. Kennedy's flag-draped casket rolled across Washington on its way to Arlington cemetery.

"I'm really not sure, but it seems like my first memory," he says. "Adults sitting in front of the television, all upset."

This summer, during an uncertain time in Mr. Stephanopoulos' career, a friend from New York found a picture of President Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, lying in the street. It's a famous photograph; the two brothers standing by a window in the White House, conferring in the half-light. He put it on his wall as a kind of talisman. Since then, he's resumed his role as the president's sounding board.

Deputy press secretary Arthur Jones was 15 when he moved from his native Baltimore to Boston, a month after Mr. Kennedy was elected president. As an African-American -- and a Catholic -- Mr. Jones took inspiration from Mr. Kennedy's election. "Life was not only livable, but anything was possible."

This week, with various specials about Mr. Kennedy on television, Mr. Jones said he found it hard sometimes to concentrate in meetings about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Mr. Kennedy's legacy has had the most impact on the president.

Thirty years ago, Bill Clinton and other Boys Nation delegates were urged by Mr. Kennedy to devote themselves to serving others. Mr. Kennedy also said, in words that were prophetic for one of them, that he wanted them "to feel very much at home" at the White House. All the boys recall being impressed; young Clinton was changed forever.

"As a teen-ager, I heard John Kennedy's summons to citizenship," Mr. Clinton said last year at the Democratic National Convention.

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