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Steven Rothstein: So we’re asking people what are they doing to help their community, their neighborhood, their religious organization. How are they contributing to the cultural and civic life of our society? That if we want things to get better, we can’t wait for somebody else. We are the people that are going to make it better. And President Kennedy knew that and we’re encouraging people just to be reminded of that every day.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Joining us today is Steven Rothstein, Executive Director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Welcome to our program.
Steven Rothstein: Thanks, Anita.
Anita Walker: First of all, I am very excited because this is a special year at the John F. Kennedy Library, and we are thrilled at the Mass Cultural Council to have embarked in a major partnership with you this year, the centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy.
Steven Rothstein: We could not be more thrilled with the partnership and with the centennial. You know, there– in 1917, John Kennedy was born in Brookline and there’s very few people born in 1917 that are so relevant today that we can learn so much from today. His call to service, his innovation is important for arts, and the partnership with Mass Cultural Council is so important to us. We’re so thrilled.
Anita Walker: You know, this is the only presidential library in New England. And when I’ve mentioned that to people they’re surprised.
Steven Rothstein: Yeah. They’re only 13 presidential libraries in the country. We’re the only one in New England. When Obama opens his in three or four years from now, whenever it is, that’ll be the 14th presidential library, ’cause they didn’t start until Roosevelt and kind of going forward. And so it is a real cultural treasure for people to come to the museum, to go online, to look at the digital archives. And again, his words, it’s not just history, but it affects what we’re talking about today. Thinking about the issue, we talk of big ideas, and those big ideas are called moon shots. Well, literally, President Kennedy brought us the first moon shot or support for the arts, or the National Seashores in the Cape or so much more.
Anita Walker: Well, obviously, we’ve been very intrigued with his thinking and the underpinnings of why he was such an advocate around the arts. In fact, I think he’s probably spoke more eloquently about the role of the arts and the humanities in a democratic society more than anybody else. Where did that come from?
Steven Rothstein: It came from him, his culture, his upbringing, and his wife. That he really fundamentally felt it wasn’t a nice to have, it was a have to have in society, to have an open and free society. He first, he is very interest in history, he wrote three books and was thinking of being a professor for a while and a journalist, so understanding that, and looking at history, looking at the importance of arts in so many ways. So while they’re in the White House, he and his wife did more to restore the White House, to bring culture into the White House, to highlight it. You know, when he passed away the National Memorial is a Kennedy Center for the Arts and he led the intellectual seeds for what became the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment of the Humanities. So it was very important to him personally and professionally.
Anita Walker: You know, this is kind of a double year because 2017 is the centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state arts agency, which is again, an outgrowth of his advocacy and his thinking. He just did not live long enough to implement these ideas himself. One of the things that I found interesting, as I’ve been delving into his writings and his speeches about the arts in a democratic society, is we talk a lot today in our advocacy about economic impact, about the job creation, about the creative economy. I don’t think that was on his mind. He wasn’t thinking about economic impact of the arts. He was thinking more of its being the soul of the nation.
Steven Rothstein: Exactly. No, I mean thinking of literally to, you know, think about inauguration when he had Robert Frost come, a poet there, to these events at the White House, to what he did when he traveled around to encouraging people, it did affect the soul. And that started with him when he was growing up and reading and what he was exposed to. And Mrs. Kennedy was a big inspiration for this. You know, because of her leadership she restored the White House, that 80 million people watched CBS when she did that special program. She led to the founding of the White House Historical Association, that there hadn’t been such a– if you think about a historical majesty like that, she found things from Madison and Monroe and other people that just literally dusty pieces of furniture, so restoring that is part of the treasure. What binds democracy together is people’s engagement and their knowledge of history and culture. And we look at the arc of history over time, societies that have fallen, they’ve let arts fall as part of that. So it is critically important as part of that. But, you know, he thought about service and the Peace Corps. He thought about inclusion for his work on civil rights and people with disabilities and so much more.
Anita Walker: So you’re going to be taking the course of 2017 to really focus on a lot of the big ideas, the moon shots that you call them. Talk a little bit about some of the areas that you’ll be focusing and how you’ll be engaging the public in that.
Steven Rothstein: So we’re engaging the public in lots of ways. First, we encourage people to come. There’s always new things in museum. We have a new centennial exhibit opening. We have things that have never been seen before. So the flag, the American flag that flew on PT 109, the speech that President Kennedy was about to give on November 22nd before the assassination. Some of his personal items, like his necktie collection and sunglasses and suitcases. So these are things that no one in the public have ever seen before, many, many other things. So first is the stuff at the museum encouraging[ph?]. But then we have a variety of events. The Postal Service has a new stamp that has President Kennedy’s picture on it that we’re dedicating the first day of issue at the library. There is to honor his commitment to physical fitness, start as a, you know, he was very active with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. We’re having 35 touch football games on a weekend and organizing that. We’re having a special day for Peace Corps– returning Peace Corps volunteers at the library. We’re having an astronaut come and talk about that. But we’re also focusing on the arts in so many ways. So in Washington, for example, the Smithsonian is doing a special exhibit, the National Archives, the Newseum, Library of Congress, and others are doing different things. Some are small case, some are full exhibit. So really trying to highlight and, of course, the Kennedy Center for the Arts we’re working closely with. And then online we’re doing a variety of things. There’s about a thousand places around the world that have been named after John F. Kennedy and we’re writing to as many of them as we can find and we’re going to do like a Google Map of all of them that we can find and encourage them to build a network so that places all over the world can celebrate that as well. Big places, like the John F. Kennedy International Airport or the Kennedy Space Center to schools, from Somerville, Massachusetts to Western Mass to India.
Anita Walker: There are dozens in Massachusetts. And I can say this because one of our programs is to fund school field trips and to put artists in the schools. And we have the awful lot of money going to John F. Kennedy schools in Massachusetts. <laughs>
Steven Rothstein: That’s great. No, it’s great. And we want those students to feel part of this connection.
Anita Walker: You’re also doing some things on college campuses, really to dig into the issues and the thinking that again, more than 50 years ago presented by John F. Kennedy extremely relevant today. Talk about some of those activities.
Steven Rothstein: Yeah. So we’re doing a variety of things at campuses and a few of them, Hobart in New York, and Brandeis, and Tufts in the Boston area, UMass Boston, and many others, where we’re going to have somebody, myself or somebody else, talk about what President Kennedy was doing on an issue. It could be on arts or Russia or Cuba or nuclear disarmament and then give a brief overview, and then have professors talk about what’s happening today, and those who be videotaped so you can see the arc of an issue. So Mark Gearan, who was the Director of Peace Corps, he’s now president of Hobart. We’re going to do a seminar with him on intellect– on national service and what’s happened to that. Brandeis is doing one on intellectual disabilities. Civil rights is we’re doing one at Tufts. So really highlighting in some ways our country has come a long way on some of these issues and heartbreakingly on some others we really haven’t come as much far. And we want college students, who sometimes think the issue started when they were born–
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Steven Rothstein: — like oh, it wasn’t an issue before, to understanding kind of the arc of these and to understand what came before them. Not to say the president got it all right, he made mistakes like everyone else. You know, the Bay of Pigs we learned from, we did not have the Situation Room in the White House before that. And what he found from the Bay of Pigs that he wasn’t getting accurate information in a timely manner, so that led to the Situation Room being established, that led to our country now having better information. The hotline to Russia, so so many things we’ve learned from in that process. The Navy SEALs started.
Anita Walker: You know, more than half of living Americans were not alive when John F. Kennedy was president. Yet, somehow, despite the fact that he served what, a thousand days–
Steven Rothstein: A thousand days.
Anita Walker: — he is iconic. What is it about– what– why was he able to make such a dramatic mark in America?
Steven Rothstein: It’s actually it shows you how time marches on. I’m one of the 20 percent who was alive when he was– when Kennedy was __________. So 80 percent of the people in the United States were born after the Kennedy administration. But he is still the most popular modern-day president. And part of it is that he embraced these big ideas. The Peace Corps, you know, that this idea that we’d send young people to countries all over the world, some that were just leaving colonial rule and they would make an impact was pretty radical back then. Eisenhower called it the “kitty core”. But since that time a quarter of a million people have gone to the Peace Corps, it had enormous impact, but it led to– it was the intellectual seeds that led to AmeriCorps, Vista, non-profits like City Year. So part of it was he had some big ideas. Second is he brought– he governed by bringing people together. Through inclusion he brought people together. And third is because his life was cut so short there’s a lot of potential, what could have been. You know, he got so much done in 1,036 days. What would’ve happened if he completed his first term, was reelected to a second term? And there’s so many opportunities. And unfortunately, the ’60s had a lot of tragedies with he and his brother passed away and Reverend King that, you know, I think our country changed dramatically.
Anita Walker: Probably the most powerful and well-known words of John F. Kennedy were, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. That resonated in his thinking behind the Peace Corps, but it’s a question you are asking visitors to the museum.
Steven Rothstein: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: What are you– what are people saying now?
Steven Rothstein: So it’s just as– that is an example where it’s just as relevant today, maybe more so for our country to get back on track. When he was in office 75 percent of the people, according to Pew Research, trusted government, 75 percent. A year ago, before the recent election, it was 19 percent. So 80 percent of the people do not trust government. Part of it is we believe we have asked the question, “What do you know about government,” so we do a lot of civics education, and, “What are you doing to help to really make an impact”? And that is registering to vote. We have naturalization. If somebody wants to come and get inspired, come to the library where one of the days that we do the immigration services and people swear their oath. The one we did at the beginning of the year had folks from 170 people from 51 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe they came and they literally were sworn in at the library. And when they do I tell them that two generations before President Kennedy his grandparents came and were naturalized and they came from Ireland because of potato famine and within two generations their grandson was president. So of the folks in the audience maybe somebody there I’ll be going to their presidential library of their kid or grandkid. So we’re asking people what are they doing to help their community, their neighborhood, their religious organization. How are they contributing to the cultural and civic life of our society? That if we want things to get better we can’t wait for somebody else. We are the people that are going to make it better. And President Kennedy knew that and we’re encouraging people just to be reminded of that every day.
Anita Walker: Well, we, as I said, are very thrilled to be entering in a partnership. And it’s really honestly opened my eyes and reminded me of so many of the– the landmark and powerful statements that John F. Kennedy made again, in such a short period of time, but also in terms of the arts and the humanities. Together we are launching this year in 2017, a new John F. Kennedy Commonwealth Award to recognize national champions around this work, which John F. Kennedy certainly was the first and foremost. And also taking a deeper look into some of the things that he said or that he wrote that talked about where he saw the positioning and the role of the arts and humanities in our democratic society. So those are things that we’re going to be doing together throughout the year and hopefully a lot more as we discover new opportunities to work together. As we kind of wrap up our conversation today, when we get to the end of the year, the end of a– centennials are great years to really galvanize and engage people in a way he haven’t been before, where do you want this to go next?
Steven Rothstein: So first is again, we are so thrilled and appreciative of the support from Mass Cultural Council and your intellectual leadership in the arts world and bringing people together and understanding it’s important to advocate. So, thank you and the organization for all that you’re doing. That we view the centennial year as an exclamation point, not a period. Meaning it’s not going to end then. We want to highlight activities, but the work will go on, the work to educate young people on civics, the work to bring public policy forums, to work to highlight the importance of things. You know, we talk about the cultural life of Cape Cod. Well, National Seashore wouldn’t exist without President Kennedy. The tall ships that will be in Boston this year, he signed a letter in 1962 that led to saving some of the tall ships that led to the first regatta in 1964 as part of that. So there’s so many things that probably– we want people to know the history, not just to understand President Kennedy, to be empowered themselves, to be inspired themselves. President– former President Obama recently said in his farewell speech about being a citizen and the importance of being a citizen, it’s the most important role in democracy. And it is. And we want to encourage every citizen to figure out how they can play that role and to contribute to the civic, artistic, cultural element of their community. We’re doing what we can and want to partner with all of them in 18, 19 and going forward.
Anita Walker: That sense of civic empowerment, that’s really the source of hope and optimism and the future of our country. <music> Steven Rothstein, Executive Director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Steven Rothstein: Thank you so much.
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