News & Politics

Highlights of a Full Day of Tribute to the Memory of JFK

The observances Wednesday began with the Medal of Freedom awards at the White House.

JFK's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. Photograph by Flickr user jemartin03.

It was a day of tribute to John F. Kennedy in Washington on Wednesday, when some of the most notable names in politics and culture came together with members of the Kennedy family at the White House, Arlington Cemetery, and, later, the National Museum of American History to pay homage to the 35th President. The week ends with the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas.

The occasion also marked the 50th anniversary of the Medal of Freedom award, the nation’s highest civilian honor, which Kennedy created, though he died before the first medals were handed out. This year President Obama bestowed the medal on 16 people including former president Bill Clinton, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, journalist Ben Bradlee, and, posthumously, astronaut Sally Ride. Attending the ceremony in the East Room were Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and JFK’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg. Schlossberg’s mother, Caroline Kennedy, was in Japan, where she presented her credentials as the new US ambassador to Emperor Akihito on Tuesday.

President Obama praised each honoree, but there were some light moments, too. He noted that when Winfrey started her career in television her advisers suggested she change her name to Suzy. He said he was also advised to change his name when starting in politics—“though not to Suzy,” which earned loud laughter from the audience.

Afterward, Obama and Clinton, along with First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gathered at the Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath near the eternal flame. They stood with their hands over their hearts during a mournful playing of “Taps.” Across from them stood Schlossberg, Ethel Kennedy, her daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and other members of the Kennedy family. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is also buried at the gravesite, along with two deceased Kennedy children. Nearby is the grave of JFK’s brother, Senator Robert Kennedy.

President Obama will host a dinner to honor the Medal of Freedom recipients and further pay tribute to the legacy of JFK Wednesday evening at the National Museum of American History.

In addition to Clinton, Winfrey, Bradlee, and Ride, the other recipients of the Medal of Freedom include jazz musician Arturo Sandoval, who is scheduled to perform at the evening dinner, activist Gloria Steinem, Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks, singer Loretta Lynn, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, environmental scientist Mario Molina, Judge Patricia Wald, civil-rights acitivist Cordy Tindell Vivian, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, former senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, and the late senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.