It was politics as not-quite-usual Friday afternoon (Sept. 19), as members of the Kennedy family joined Harvard faculty and students and other political dignitaries to rename the forum at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) for John F. Kennedy Jr. The event, in celebration of the forum’s 25th anniversary, was a moving testament to the legacy of President Kennedy’s only son, who was passionate about engaging young people in the democratic process.
“From the beginning a generation ago, the IOP [the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics] had a powerful hold on our family, and especially as it gradually came to be the place where Jack’s son, John, found he could almost hear his father’s voice, calling us all to serve our country,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’56 (D-Mass.) in a touching, sometimes tearful tribute to his nephew’s commitment to political discourse.
“Now their names will be linked forever: son and father, forum and School. To see their names side by side is to think of all they meant to us, and how they inspired us and how very much we love them both,” he added.
Family members and former colleagues from the Institute of Politics lauded John F. Kennedy Jr. as far more than a figurehead. He was an active member of the IOP’s Senior Advisory Board for 15 years, a regular participant in forum events, and an enthusiastic promoter of the IOP’s mission to inspire young people to political participation.
“As he once said, ‘the most important challenge is what this institute and these forums do very well, which is to get people involved in debating the issues and making democracy work.’ That was John’s mission,” said Sen. Kennedy.
John was “a strong believer that participation in the political process was absolutely critical for a democracy,” said his sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg ’80. “He understood that politics was no longer an every-two-year or four-year story but an all-day, every day drama.”
Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers said that the Kennedy family inspired him throughout his life, shaping his interest and commitment to public service.
“From this day forward, the forum at the Institute of Politics will bear the name of another John F. Kennedy who used his gifts to enable another generation to become informed and engaged in political discussion,” he said. “I believe that our University will be better able to do its part in training the leaders of the next generation because of what we celebrate today.”
Like a Greek forum, with better cable
The celebration, which packed the forum with a lively mix of media, students, politicians, and Harvard faculty, also paid tribute to the mission and history of that space, which is at the geographic and figurative center of the Kennedy School. The forum, formerly the ARCO Forum, was envisioned as “a forum in the Greek sense of the word,” said KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr., who added that KSG students call the forum their “sixth course” for the instructive power of its events.
Several short video clips documented the history of the forum, the IOP, and the Kennedy family’s involvement with both. Since its founding in 1978, the forum has hosted more than 2,000 events witnessed by more than 600,000 live audience members. Its guest list is a who’s who of international political figures: George H. Bush, William J. Clinton, Yitzak Rabin, Kofi Annan, Pervez Musharaf, Yasser Arafat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Jesse Jackson Jr. join the roster of academics, community leaders, authors, and artists who have visited its stage.
Central to the forum’s mission is the mandate that all guests must field unscripted questions from the audience of students, faculty members, and the general public, making for lively political engagement. This interactive component of each forum in particular resonated with its new namesake.
“Like his father before him, it was sheer bliss to lean back in his chair, lock his fingers behind his head, and be part of a spirited discussion of issues of the day,” said Sen. Kennedy. “John wanted everyone, but especially the young, to be more aware and more involved.”
Several speakers linked the mission of the forum to that of George magazine, which John F. Kennedy Jr. launched several years before his 1999 death in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard.
“He challenged us to make politics a little more hip and a lot more fun,” said former IOP Director Heather Campion.
The younger Kennedy was also the inspiration for the renovation that marked the forum’s 25th anniversary.
“It was his idea to take this forum into the 21st century and make it speak to the world,” said Dan Glickman, director of the Institute of Politics and former U.S. secretary of agriculture. Over the summer, the forum upgraded its technical capacities and got a facelift with new carpeting, lighting, staging, and interiors. Live videoconferencing brought congratulatory comments from CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and former IOP Director Alan Simpson, former U.S. senator (R-Wyo.).
An independent spirit
In evoking the legacy and celebrating the memory of John F. Kennedy Jr., the event nodded to his independent spirit and playful humor. Former IOP Director Campion recalled John as a dedicated but unpredictable member of the leadership team who arrived at meetings unescorted, usually by taxi, sometimes in crisp suits and other times in rumpled casual wear.
She told a now-famous story about John bringing his 90-pound, untrained German shepherd, Samson, to a Senior Advisory Board meeting. When the pooch panicked halfway up the IOP’s spiral staircase, JFK Jr. scooped him up and deposited him at the feet of a young staffer, whom the dog promptly bit.
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg noted that this renaming event would have provided her Brown-educated brother with the ideal opportunity to make a joke at her expense. She imagined that he would tease, “You went to Harvard, and now they’re naming half the building after me.”