BOSTON -- Four days a week, David O'Donnell leads a 90-minute "Kennedy Tour" around Boston that features stops at government buildings, museums, hotels and meeting halls.
Tour-goers from throughout the United States and abroad, who may see John F. Kennedy as inspiration, martyr or Cold War hero, hear stories of his ancestors and early campaigns, the rise of the Irish in state politics, the odd fact that Kennedy was the only president outlived by his grandmother.
Yet at some point along the tour, inevitably, questions from the crowd shift from politics to gossip.
"Someone will ask, ‘Did Jack Kennedy have an affair with Marilyn Monroe?' With this woman? That woman?" explains O'Donnell, who has worked for a decade in the city's visitors bureau. Those asking forgive the infidelities as reflecting another era, he says. "It's something people, in an odd way, just accept."
The Kennedy image, the "mystique" that attracts tourists and historians alike, did not begin with his presidency and is in no danger of ending 50 years after his death. Its journey has been uneven but resilient -- a young and still-evolving politician whose name was sanctified by his assassination, upended by discoveries of womanizing, hidden health problems and political intrigue, and forgiven in numerous polls that place JFK among the most beloved of former presidents.
The last half century has demonstrated the transcendence of Kennedy's appeal. It's as if we needed to learn the worst before returning to the qualities that defined Kennedy at his best -- the smile and the wavy hair, the energy and the confidence, the rhetoric and the promise.
"He had a gift for rallying the country to its best, most humane and idealistic impulses," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro, who cites such Kennedy achievements as the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty and the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"He's become more and more of an iconic figure as the years have passed," says presidential biographer Robert Dallek, whose "Camelot's Court" is one of many Kennedy books out this fall.
"I think it's partly, of course, because of the assassination. But that doesn't really account for why he has this phenomenal hold on the public." President William McKinley, he noted, was assassinated in 1901, "but 50 years after his death hardly anyone remembered who he was."
Boston is the official home for Kennedy memories, starting at the John F.
But thousands of Kennedy buildings, busts and plaques can be found around the country, from the grandeur of Washington's Kennedy Center to the scale of New York City's JFK Airport to the oddity of a Kennedy golf course in Aurora, Colo. (He publicly avoided predecessor Dwight Eisenhower's beloved leisure sport but actually played it well).
"He stands out among all the modern presidents," says historian Larry J. Sabato, whose book, "The Kennedy Half Century," has just been published. "Franklin Roosevelt was more consequential, and Harry Truman may have been, too. But Kennedy overshadows them all. He's the one president from the post-World War II era who could appear on the streets now and fit right in."
Andrew Ball, senior historian at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, noted that the first decade after Kennedy's assassination was defined by the stately "Camelot school" of biography, including former JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Days."
But starting in the 1970s, in the post-Watergate era, the Kennedy image was challenged by the findings of congressional committees, by a wave of gossipy best-sellers and by one of the great investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh. His "The Dark Side of Camelot" detailed Kennedy's many sexual affairs, alleged connections to organized crime and attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. When the book came out in 1997, New York Times reviewer Thomas Powers said Hersh's "copious new detail often makes for painful reading," which "can't honestly be ignored."
But during a recent interview, Hersh acknowledged that Kennedy's reputation was intact and that if he'd known the president personally, he might have been charmed, too.