Peter S. Canellos

What Kennedy knew, but didn’t say

By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S farewell address to Massachusetts, delivered 50 years ago today, is a deceptively significant piece of rhetoric. To the outside world, its references to the state’s Puritan founders and high-toned accomplishments sounded like the standard local flattery, like praising the potatoes in Idaho or the oranges in Florida.

But Kennedy was well aware of his unique position in Massachusetts history. He was the first Catholic president, and he came out of the nation’s center of Catholicism. He was also a Harvard man, and an intellectual, who really believed that the Puritan values asserted by John Winthrop were part of a national birthright that extended beyond the actual descendants of those first families.

This wasn’t a universally accepted idea in Massachusetts. And there was more that Kennedy knew but did not say. When he hailed the long record of national leadership emanating from Boston that “guided our footsteps in times of crisis as well as in times of calm,’’ he did not mention that the accomplishments belonged to the distant past. The Massachusetts he was speaking to was quite different, caught in a decades-long spiral of declining influence.

Throughout the 19th century, Massachusetts was all that Kennedy said it was. Its abolition movement provoked the Civil War and brought about emancipation. It was the fertile field in which great art and literature grew. Its thinkers pioneered the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the public-school movement, and religious studies.

But by the dawn of the 20th century, Massachusetts was a spent vessel. Its inability to accept and assimilate immigrants caused not only social strife, but economic and cultural decline. The tension between various ethnic groups and bodies of citizens served to delegitimize the state’s institutions.

City governments led by immigrant-group mayors were perceived to be corrupt, a dynamic that led to decades of cat-and-mouse politics between “rascal’’ politicians and Yankee-led reform commissions.

Private institutions lost strength and credibility because of their elitist reputations or outright discrimination. When Kennedy’s congressional successor, Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill, watched Prohibition-era Harvard students openly toasting their graduation with whiskey, his disgust came not from the violation of the law — plenty of Irish speakeasies did the same — but from the students’ breezy assumption that they would never be punished. The double standard was intolerable.

The university that produced so many national leaders was, for much of the 20th century, something less than a meritocracy; worse, in the decades leading up to Kennedy’s election, the Yankee Protestant world it was helping to uphold was an anachronism.

As early as 1938, the Boston writer John P. Marquand won a Pulitzer Prize for his gently mocking novel, “The Late George Apley,’’ revealing the quaint vanities and thinning bloodlines of Beacon Hill’s trust-fund elite. Such a picture of genial declinism was one side of the Massachusetts story, embodied by a Protestant power structure clinging to its outmoded ways. The other side, represented in Kennedy’s time by the speaker of the Massachusetts House, John “Iron Duke’’ Thompson, was the “Robin Hood’’ politics of ethnic leaders, as if squirreling away tax receipts for one’s own tribe was an end in itself.

Those two sides could have continued their dance of death for decades more if Kennedy hadn’t abruptly changed the equation. He was proudly, famously Catholic, his family on intimate terms with every Irish prelate, and yet here he was declaring that his administration would be guided by John Winthrop.

By making Winthrop his antecedent, his very own ancestor, he severed the chain of bloodlines that had become Massachusetts’ pillory. He replaced them with “the common threads woven by the Puritan and Pilgrim, the fisherman and farmer, the Yankee and the immigrant.’’

He was imploring Massachusetts to believe that those common threads did exist. He was reminding his home state that its fruits were intellectual. He was promising Masschusetts that he would give its tired institutions a new burst of vitality, in a more unified landscape where Boston truly could be a city on a hill, and its people could truly be the best and brightest.

Peter S. Canellos is the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe.