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The Life Inside the John F. Kennedy Library

Charles Hillinger's America

February 07, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Dave Powers, John F. Kennedy's best friend, was asked what he thought the late President would say about the library here that bears his name.

"Oh, he would like it, I'm sure. All of this memorabilia would be familiar, of course. He would walk around and think of something not on exhibit that he'd believe probably should be and say: 'Hey, Dave. Remember that present I got from that trip in France? Maybe we ought to put it over here. . . .' "

Powers, 75, curator of the museum at the John F. Kennedy Library, was at Kennedy's side from the time he ran for Congress in 1946 until he reached the White House in 1961. During Kennedy's 1,037 days as President, Powers served as Kennedy's sounding board and aide.

With Kenneth O'Donnell and Joe McCarthy, Powers co-authored what is often considered the best of the books about the Kennedy years, "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye."

This particular day Powers, who has been curator since the library was opened in 1979, was making arrangements to announce the name of the sculptor who will create a larger-than-life bronze statue of President Kennedy. It will stand on a pedestal in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse facing Boston Commons.

"We are down to five finalists," Powers said, standing by five proposed models. "The type of statue we want is something that captures the spirit of the President going through history always moving forward. . . ."

Sculptors from throughout the world have entered the competition, he said. "We hope the statue will be finished in time to dedicate it May 29, 1989, on what would have been the President's 72nd birthday."

The President's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, is on the commission to select the statue, as is Powers. The announcement will be made this month.

It was a quiet, bitter-cold day in Boston. Only a handful of visitors were at the Kennedy Library at Columbia Point.

Guide Maura Porter, 22, lingered outside the President and the Press Theater that runs excerpts from Kennedy's televised press conferences.

Inside, newswoman Mary Bethune was on the screen asking Kennedy: "It has been a long time since we've had a definitive report on your health. How's your aching back?" The President laughed and replied: "It depends on the weather and politics. . . ."

"This is my favorite part of the museum," Porter said. "I never tire of it. . . . His wit and humor really come out in the press conferences."

The museum is filled with items largely donated by family members--letters, photographs, mementoes, Kennedy's World War II Navy uniform and the Underwood typewriter he used to write his books, "Profiles in Courage" and "Why England Slept."

In the center of the exhibit is the presidential desk as he left it for the trip to Dallas. Among the items on the desk is a coconut with Kennedy's scrawled message: " 11 men alive. Need small boat. Native knows posit. Kennedy." His boat, PT 109, had been sunk by the Japanese; Kennedy and his crew swam to safety on a tiny South Pacific island. A model of PT 109 also is on display.

In a 30-minute film, Kennedy is seen saying at his inaugural: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." At the Berlin Wall he declares, " Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner). " And in another bite of history he demands that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev remove all offensive nuclear missiles from Cuba within 24 hours.

Many who visit the museum, Porter noted, say they shook Kennedy's hand during his campaigns. "If they are old enough, they all remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, the day he died. There's hardly ever a dry eye among the older people coming through.

"A common question is, 'Do the Kennedy family ever come here?' The answer is yes, all of them."

"Next to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Tex., this is the most popular of the eight presidential libraries as far as visitor numbers," noted Charles Daly, new director of the Kennedy library. "More than 300,000 men, women and children come here each year. More than 2,000 scholars, historians and researchers annually use the archives."

Daly, 60, is former vice president of Harvard and the University of Chicago and served as liaison between the White House and Congress during the Kennedy Administration.

The library archives contain more than 32 million documents, 150,000 photographs, 6 million feet of film and several hundred oral histories on tape, recordings about Kennedy and his administration made by White House staff and people who knew him.

"We have all of the papers of John, Bobby and Ted Kennedy and nearly all the papers of members of J.F.K.'s Administration and much, much more," Daly said. "For example, we have the records of the Democratic National Committee and we have the papers and memorabilia of Ernest Hemingway. We are planning to collect the papers and memoirs of the Peace Corps, until now never collected."

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