US flag and presidential seal on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

Less than 15 minutes after entering the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and I'm feeling distinctly emotional.

I'm here in the museum's first room, which deals with JFK's assassination and funeral. Displays include the saddle from the symbolically riderless horse which took part in the president's funeral procession, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's handwritten instructions for the funeral program.

On a screen, a film about the funeral and commemorations is playing. While long dimly aware of the air of tragic glamour associated with the Kennedys, I've never felt any particular attachment to them until I find myself welling up as I watch the solemn procession, the streets lined with grave-faced mourners, the melancholy of the event somehow enhanced by the pomp and ceremony.

Then little JFK Jr. appears on screen, saluting his father's coffin as it passes by, and I am groping in my bag for a tissue.

As one visitor whispers to his companion: "A sombre way to start the day." It's also a canny decision on the part of the curators: deal with the elephant looming in the room - Kennedy's death - up front.

Immersing myself in the exhibits in an attempt to stave off the embarrassment of a full-blown bout of public sobbing, I spot a paragraph printed in smallish type on the wall.

It outlines the bare facts of the arrest and killing of the man accused of Kennedy's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, the investigation by the Warren Commission and its conclusion that both Oswald and his killer, Jack Ruby, acted alone. "But the unanswered questions surrounding these events have lent an air of mystery about the President's assassination that persists to this day," it concludes.

Simple, and to the point. Yet also a statement of intent: there will be no conspiracy theories here, no references to the grassy knoll, no speculation as to the involvement of the KGB or the CIA or the mafia or alien lifeforms.

This is not entirely unexpected at a place such as this, a serious institution dedicated to the memory of the late president. Not least because we are here in JFK's home town of Boston, a city in which his influence continues to be felt.

It's here in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, the new ribbon of parkway wending its way through Boston that's named for JFK's mother. It's here when I visit the Union Oyster House, the United States' oldest restaurant, and am shown the booth where Kennedy habitually ate lunch, adorned with a plaque in his honour. And it's here at breakfast, when I open the local newspaper to read that, had he lived, Kennedy would have celebrated his 97th birthday during my stay. He is, undeniably, part of the story of this place.

JFK's sail boat Victura outside the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

Eventually we're ushered into a small theatre where we watch an introductory film dealing with Kennedy's early life, including his time at Harvard and his military service in World War II, up to when he accepted the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July 1960.

Then it's through to a curving corridor covering the presidential campaign, including the famous debate with Republican candidate Richard Nixon - the first televised US presidential debate - and Kennedy's victory and subsequent inauguration, when he became the youngest elected president in American history, and the first Catholic to hold the position. The displays include memorabilia from the campaign and recreations of a campaign office and the Chicago TV studio where the Kennedy-Nixon debate took place.

Next, in the Briefing Room, I learn how Kennedy harnessed the relatively new medium of television to become the first president to conduct live, televised press conferences. There are also details of his 1963 visit to Berlin, including the note card on which he phonetically spelled out his famous pronouncement: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

After this, there are exhibits covering various aspects of Kennedy's presidency including the space program, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the appointment of his brother Robert as attorney-general, a display of furnishings from Kennedy's Oval Office which also includes video and audio related to the civil rights movement, the role of the First Lady and the Kennedys' family life. Mention of JFK's rather lively love life is conspicuous by its absence.

Finally, I pass into a large pavilion with full-height windows looking over Boston Harbour and a colossal US flag overhead, before heading outside. In front of the modernist form of the museum, JFK's beloved sailing boat Victura stands facing the harbour. It's busy with tourists and schoolchildren inside but out here I'm alone with the wind and the water.

That afternoon it's warmer and sunnier as I catch the subway to Brookline, the leafy but un-showy suburb where Kennedy was born. From the Coolidge Corner stop, it's a short walk to Beals Street, a tree-lined suburban road lined with gracious old timber homes with lovely, lush gardens. It was here, at number 83, that JFK was born on May 29, 1917. His parents, Rose and Joe, moved into this house shortly after their marriage and began their family here.

The couple later moved to a bigger house nearby to accommodate their growing brood - they eventually had nine children - but Rose repurchased the house in 1966 and set about restoring it to how it looked in 1917 as a memorial to her late son. She later donated it to the National Park Service, which runs free tours lead by uniformed rangers.

After an introductory spiel on the front porch, we're led inside by our guide. At one time, this was home to eight people including Rose and Joseph, their first four children and two maids. It's not a particularly big house and I suspect they would have been a touch too cosy in here.

Our guide leads us upstairs, where we see the master bedroom in which JFK (or Jack, as he was known in the family) was born, along with the nursery, second bedroom and a titchy shared bathroom. Decor-wise, it resembles the home of a rather genteel great-grandmother.

The master bedroom, where JFK was born in 1917, at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

There's also a small study which was Rose's domain. As our guide explains, Mrs Kennedy adhered to a theory of "scientific motherhood" and viewed raising a child as a process to be rigorously controlled. Thus the bath water had to be a specific temperature, the children had to line up in order of age to brush their teeth and there was even a prescribed daily number of hugs. She also kept extremely detailed records on note cards of their vaccinations and medical ailments (Jack in particular was a sickly child).

Our guide plays us a snippet of audio which illuminates Rose's attitude towards motherhood: "When you hold your baby in your arms for the first time and you think of all the things you can say and do to influence him, it's a tremendous responsibility. What you do with him and for him can influence not only him, but everyone he meets and not for a day or a month or a year but for time and eternity."

As our guide tells us, Joe granted each of his nine children 15 minutes of his undivided attention every evening, despite what must have been a busy schedule as a prominent businessman, politician and later US ambassador to Great Britain (he also found time for a number of extramarital affairs). But with all this attention and meticulous care came high expectations. Every evening, questions would be posted in the house - relating to everything from the history of Spanish colonisation in North America to the performance of the Red Sox's latest player - and the children would be required to come to dinner with answers prepared. Debates on the hot issues of the day were encouraged and the children were expected to defend their position to their siblings. Given this context, it's little surprise that all three of the Kennedy boys who survived long enough (eldest son Joseph was killed in World War II) entered politics.

Downstairs, we see the dining room where, our guide says, Jack and his elder brother once had a fist fight over a chocolate cake, along with the living room and the kitchen. The latter, our guide says, was particularly tricky for Rose to restore to its 1917 appearance in the 60s. Not only was she working from memory with no photographs of the interior for reference but the kitchen was not a room where she spent a great deal of time as the family had a cook. But regardless of whether it's 100 per cent accurate, this room and the house as a whole provide an evocative snapshot of a particular moment in American life.

Besides, our guide says, the house should be viewed through the prism of memory and the nostalgia of the time - in the turbulent 60s, 1917 must have appealed as a simpler era. Then there are the political ambitions of the Kennedy family. Rose likely knew her two younger sons would seek office following JFK's death, so we might see this as her campaign piece.

But it's also a reminder that, for all the glamour and power he later accrued, Kennedy was once a little boy like any other, ordered about by his mother and scrapping with his siblings. And as I wander back to the station along the sun- dappled sidewalk, I'll confess my eyes are a little misty once again.

FACT FILE

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is open 9am-5pm daily. Admission is $14 for adults, with discounts for seniors, students and children. jfklibrary.org.

The John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site is open Wednesday-Sunday, 9.30am-5pm from late May to the end of October. Admission is free. nps.gov/jofi.

Emirates launched its daily direct service to Boston from its Dubai hub in March and now it flies to numerous destinations in North America. Its services to Boston and New York are a particularly attractive option flying from Perth, enabling travellers to reach the east coast of the US with only one stop, and it will launch a direct Chicago service on August 5. Travel agents, emirates.com and 1300 303 777.

For more on visiting Boston, go to bostonusa.com.

Gemma Nisbet visited Boston courtesy of Emirates airlines and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The West Australian

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