On anniversary of JFK speech, a new Kennedy voice is heard

President Kennedy delivering his 'City on the Hill'' address in 1961. President Kennedy delivering his "City on the Hill'' address in 1961. (Globe File Photo)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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They came to pay tribute to President Kennedy and a speech he delivered 50 years ago. But it was another Kennedy and another speech that had Beacon Hill buzzing yesterday.

Commemorating John F. Kennedy’s “City Upon a Hill’’ address in 1961, his great-nephew Joseph P. Kennedy III stood at the same dais in the Massachusetts House and delivered a lofty speech decrying the vituperative political rhetoric that he said is tearing the nation’s fabric.

Kennedy, a 30-year-old prosecutor from Cape Cod considered perhaps the family’s best chance at reentering American politics, connected the assassinations of JFK and of his grandfather Robert F. Kennedy to Saturday’s deadly rampage in Arizona, saying the latest outburst of political violence should mark a turning point in the national dialogue.

“It is time for a change,’’ he told a joint session of the Legislature. “For too long, the rhetoric from Washington has been toxic.’’

Plucking examples of strident speech from both parties, he deplored liberal protesters crying “Death to Cheney,’’ Tea Party activists shouting racist and antigay slurs at members of Congress, and radio talk show hosts calling President Obama and congressional Democrats “communists and traitors.’’

“This rhetoric creates an atmosphere of hate in particularly difficult times,’’ Kennedy said. “This isn’t what President Kennedy stood for. It isn’t what Dr. King or Robert Kennedy stood for.’’

Joseph Kennedy’s speech, delivered just after the Legislature had listened in rapt silence to an audio recording of the “City Upon a Hill’’ address, drew a standing ovation and immediately renewed speculation about the younger Kennedy’s future.

With the retirement of US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy last week, the Kennedy family is, for the first time since 1947, without a member serving in federal office.

Joseph Kennedy, whose father, Joseph P. Kennedy II, served in Congress, flirted with a run in the 10th Congressional District last year, and some Democrats are eager to see him resume the family’s political tradition.

“Pretty amazing,’’ Senate President Therese Murray said after the speech. “I think we have a new Kennedy. He hit that one right out of the ballpark. . . . Another historic speech from another Kennedy.’’

Questioned by a reporter afterward, Kennedy demurred about his political future, saying he loves his job and “at the moment, that’s what I’m focused on.’’

But yesterday’s ceremony provided perhaps his most prominent stage yet. Not only did he speak moments after President Kennedy’s recorded voice had filled the ornate chamber, but legislators were given black-and-white photos showing JFK standing in the same spot delivering his “City Upon a Hill’’ speech.

The contrast was striking. John Kennedy in 1961 was a war hero, US senator, and a president-elect paying homage to Massachusetts as he prepared to lead a nation. This Kennedy is a little-known assistant district attorney in Barnstable County.

But Joseph Kennedy, rather than merely recounting his family’s history, used his speech to try to vault himself into the national debate following the shooting deaths in Tucson of six people and the grave wounding of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona.

Speaking of JFK’s opposition to racial discrimination and violence, Joseph Kennedy said, “for what he represented, he was taken away. As was Dr. King. As was my grandfather, Robert. And I know that we are all hoping and praying that we don’t lose Gabby Giffords as well.’’

Without naming Sarah Palin’s now-famous map targeting Giffords and other members of Congress, he criticized “political images from both parties showing opponents in the crosshairs of a rifle-scope.’’

Urging Americans to return to “service and sacrifice, courage and judgment, integrity and dedication,’’ he said, “these are the ideals that ought to endure, rather than partisan rancor, naked self-interest, and other corrosive effects of promoting social divisions — a kind of moral gerrymandering that saps our spirit and collective will.’’

Vicki Kennedy listened to the speech and smiled throughout the tributes to President Kennedy. She did not make any remarks from the dais or speak with reporters afterward.

A handful of former lawmakers who were in the chamber in 1961 were on hand yesterday to mark the anniversary of the “City Upon a Hill’’ address, one in a series of events commemorating John Kennedy’s election and inauguration.

Mayor Michael J. McGlynn of Medford, wearing a JFK button from the 1960 campaign, recalled watching the speech as a 7-year-old, crouching under the desk of his uncle, then a state representative.

Afterward, he shook John Kennedy’s hand.

“As a 7-year-old, when you go back to the neighborhood, everyone wants to shake your hand because you shook the president’s hand,’’ he said. “I remember that very distinctly.’’

Thomas C. Wojtkowski, 85, a former Democratic state representative from Pittsfield, recalled the sense of enthusiasm he felt after hearing John Kennedy’s speech, with its invocations of the pilgrim and the Puritan, the fisherman and the farmer, the Yankee and the immigrant.

“It was so moving,’’ he said. “He had just been elected president. My god. We were so excited.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at