President Kennedy

The election of John F. Kennedy as the 35th president of the United States in 1960 ushered in not only a "New Frontier" for the nation, but brought a new generation of scholars into high positions in Washington. For this band of academics and thinkers, many of whom had long-standing connections to Harvard, the weeks immediately following President Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963 were a time of deep sorrow and intense confusion. When journalist Mary McGrory told Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan that they would never laugh again, he replied, "Heavens, Mary. We'll laugh again. It's just that we'll never be young again." Yet, just days after the President was laid to rest, some of his closest aides decided to honor his memory by providing an eternal link between the nation's youth and the political process.

"The future promise of any nation can be directly measured by the present prospects of its youth."

- John F. Kennedy

In a flurry of meetings and memos at the end of 1963 and the beginning of 1964, President Kennedy's family and closest advisors sought to settle on a suitable memorial to the slain President. They decided that the most appropriate way to celebrate John F. Kennedy's life was not through an edifice of marble or glass, but by building an institution that would celebrate and embody the qualities of vigor, grace, and erudition that President Kennedy brought to American politics. So it was that the Institute of Politics was born.

However, the genesis of the Institute of Politics traces back to the early heady days of the Kennedy presidency, long before the horror of November 1963. In June of 1961, President Nathan Pusey met with President Kennedy to discuss the possibility of depositing his official presidential papers on the campus of Harvard, where he had been an undergraduate and recently an overseer. On November 10, the White House announced that President Kennedy was giving serious consideration to plans to build his Presidential library in Cambridge.

Negotiations and conversations proceeded at a leisurely pace for much of the next two years. In the Spring of 1963, President Kennedy visited various sites in Boston that were under consideration for his library complex. At a May 8 meeting with representatives from Harvard, the President weighed the options he had before him.

According to the official White House memorandum, Kennedy was "excited" about the area at the corner of Memorial Drive and Boylston Street (the present location of the Institute of Politics), however he was told that obtaining the land, which was then a Massachusetts Transit Authority car barn, would be close to impossible. He thus settled on a parcel of land across the Charles River on Western Avenue. Yet, the memorandum contained a proviso stating that "if the car barn site were to become available... he would like to have an option for obtaining the site." On September 30, 1963, President Kennedy reached an understanding with Harvard to build his presidential library/museum on the Western Avenue site, providing the car barn did not become available.

Jacqueline Kennedy
Jacqueline Kennedy meets the first group of IOP Fellows.

“The Institute was established in 1966 as a living memorial to my father, President John F. Kennedy. My mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, was the driving force behind this effort. She wanted to make something that outlived the aura and memories of my father's presidency – something lastingly fresh and alive that would help shape future leadership.”

– Caroline Kennedy

In the planning sessions it quickly became apparent that, as with much that President Kennedy did, his presidential library would be different from those that preceded it. His was to be far more than a repository for documents. Had he completed two terms in the White House, John Kennedy would have been a very energetic 52-year-old with the drive to make an even greater mark on the world. He himself once remarked, "Whether I serve one or two terms in the Presidency, I will find myself at the end of that period at what might be called the awkward age – too old to begin a new career and too young to write my memoirs." The library would serve as the base his post-presidential activities, giving him a place to think, write, discuss, cajole, and teach.

Two months later, President Kennedy was assassinated and those who sought to find a way to remember him had a history of planning to work with, but in a radically changed context. Now, John F. Kennedy was dead and there would have to be a new life at the center of the Institution that would honor his memory. Washington Post reporter David Broder described the founding direction for what would become the Institute, writing that Jacqueline Kennedy, "became determined that the ethic of public service which her husband, at his best, embodied and expressed, must be kept alive for successor generations," and that, "John Kennedy would be remembered for inspiring the belief that government and its handmaiden, politics, really are the highest of secular callings."

On December 19, 1963, a mere 27 days after Dallas, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and some of the late President's closest confidants gathered in a private dining room of New York's 21 Club. Struggling through their shared grief, they discussed how best to commemorate John F. Kennedy. They quickly agreed on the creation of a library and a museum. Yet, they just as quickly agreed that something was missing. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in a memo the following day, "So far we do not have what will make the institution live."

The meeting at the 21 Club broke up that evening without any consensus on what would replace John F. Kennedy as the "living" part of his memorial. The decision was made to have the participants write out their thoughts in memoranda to Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then a White House aide, who would forward them to Robert F. Kennedy. It is a testament to both these remarkable men and the power of their ideas that, more than thirty years later, their visions serve as the guideposts for what the Institute of Politics actually does.

At the 21 Club dinner, John Kenneth Galbraith, having returned to the U.S. from his stint as Ambassador to India, argued for a "center for students, graduate and undergraduate, doing research on the period or American politics and political history in general." Yet upon further reflection the following morning, and in the usual spirit of Galbraithian modesty, he pronounced himself "uncharacteristically" discontented with his own proposal. He wrote in his memo that such a center devoted solely to scholarship "would not be a living institution." He concluded that, "We can only make it live with something that is itself alive." Galbraith wrote that research institutions were worthy, but they are not exciting. They would not have been exciting to John F. Kennedy. In words that would have a decisive effect on the future of the nascent Institute, Galbraith made the declaration that, "If it is to have life and reflect an interest in the practices as distinct from the academic scholarship of politics, I conclude that this must be a center for undergraduates." This sentence laid the cornerstone for the discussions that would lead to the creation of the Institute of Politics.

Galbraith hoped for a center that would bring "political fellows" for set periods of time, organize discussions, coordinate seminars, and serve as "the place where visiting political leaders would meet undergraduates." He went on to lay out his rationale:

"It is... the undergraduates who conduct the most active political discussions at Harvard. They would be the most interested in the political residents. John F. Kennedy would, I think, have liked the thought of undergraduates being encouraged to a more serious interest in politics. His own interest, as that of other members of the family, traces to the Harvard preoccupation with public affairs. It would fill a present weakness — the tendency for political discussion to become detached from the working craft."

President Kennedy's predilection for action as opposed to esoteric and irrelevant research was expressed in Galbraith's description of an institution that "undergraduates would be encouraged to make the ... focus of their extracurricular political activity," where they could be exposed to politics as it really is and politics as it should be.

In the memoranda written in the weeks following the December 19 meeting, a vague consensus began to emerge regarding the markers for the "living memorial." Harvard Government Professor Samuel Beer wrote to Schlesinger on December 21 that the proposal include an "effort to incite undergraduates to go into politics. I do not mean merely public service; I mean running for elective public office ... I would make this the main purpose of the Memorial." However, while there was wide-ranging unanimity on the need for a "living center," its exact scope and function was already disputed. Don K. Price, Dean of the Graduate School of Public Administration, was still wedded to the idea of a research center. Richard Neustadt, a professor at Columbia and occasional Kennedy adviser, wanted to create a whole new school. Samuel Beer envisioned a center that would forward the battle for the principles of the Kennedy Administration, one whose "purpose would be not merely to understand the world, but to change it." He sought to "reproduce in an institution something of the purposive effort and transforming impact of the man." National Security Adviser and former Harvard Dean McGeorge Bundy must have found this debate more exasperating than dealing with the Soviets because he, in effect, threw up his hands in aggravation and proposed a simple mission statement that would postpone the hard decisions until later: "To enlist young Americans and young defenders of freedom everywhere in the understanding and practice of democratic political life."

Bundy need not have worried. As is often the case, the debates of the professors would soon be overtaken by events. The inevitable process of discussion bumping up against decision would start to settle the disputes over how best to remember President Kennedy. However, the competing proposals put forth in those first few weeks after the assassination would form the basis for the Institute of Politics. In many ways, the divergent points of view encapsulated in the memoranda represent debates that continue to this very day. What was clear to all involved was that an assassin's bullet had taken the life out of what was to be John F. Kennedy's living center of operations, and now something new would have to be found to give the center life and honor President Kennedy's memory and vision.

"Little more than a babble of voices on the Charles" was how Richard Neustadt described the early discussions over the role of the new Memorial Institute. While no clear consensus was emerging on what precise role the Institute should play, there was a general agreement among those who were part of the ongoing discussions that the center should be administered by its own board, independent from control by either Harvard or the Library. However, President Pusey was understandably uneasy about having an institute at Harvard that did not fall under the University's oversight.

By June of 1964, half a year after discussions had first begun, all sides came to a mutually acceptable agreement. The Institute would be joined with the 30-year-old Graduate School of Public Administration. Together the entire school would be called the John F. Kennedy School of Government. While the School would continue its focus on training graduate students to think critically about public questions, the Institute would fulfill its primary mission of inculcating undergraduates with a sense of purpose and drive to confront head-on those same public questions — what President Kennedy called "the unfinished business of the country."

On December 13, 1964, nearly a year following the first meeting of the departed President's confidants, the Kennedy Memorial Foundation held a dinner in New York. There Robert F. Kennedy, New York's newly elected senator, announced to the world that along with an archive and museum, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library would contain "an Institute of Politics."

Discussions on how the Institute should function could have continued indefinitely. At a certain point it became obvious that the final decision would have to be made on a day-to-day basis by whoever was chosen to become the Institute's leader. This personnel decision would have far-reaching consequences for the newly created Institute of Politics. Just as many of the innumerable questions over the proper role of the President of the United States were settled by the wisdom and foresight of George Washington, so too the first Director of the IOP would unalterably shape its future. Luckily, much like the authors of the Constitution, the founders of the Institute did not have to look far for their first leader.

In his January 4, 1964 memorandum to Arthur Schlesinger, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy concluded with the observation that "the only man who could have run [the Center] correctly was the President himself: and the best qualified substitute is the Attorney General, who will have other things to do." Absent these two choices, the friends of John F. Kennedy had the felicitous fortune to find among themselves someone eminently qualified to fill the void. Professor Richard E. Neustadt of Columbia University, one of the original conferees at the 21 Club and a graduate of the School of Public Administration, had served in the Truman Administration, had been an occasional adviser to President Kennedy, and was the author of Presidential Power; a seminal study of the way the American presidency functions.

On January 11, 1965, Harvard University issued a press release announcing the appointment of Professor Neustadt to the faculty of Harvard as "Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Public Administration and Professor of Government." The press release went on to express President Pusey's hope that Professor Neustadt would eventually become the director of "a new kind of institution in American life within a university setting, which will furnish a meeting place for the scholars and for individuals pursuing careers in practical politics and public service."

In remarks before the Harvard Board of Overseers that same day, President Pusey laid out his vision of an Institute of Politics that would, "seek continuously to realize in our society some of the civic ideals made vividly personal in the career of the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy." Pusey told the Overseers that the IOP would need a $10 million endowment if it would be able to truly serve as a center for fulfilling President Kennedy's desire to bring the worlds of academia and public affairs together.

"I would urge that our political parties and our universities recognize the need for greater cooperation and understanding between politicians and intellectuals. ...What we need are men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge and recognize the mutual dependence of our two worlds."

John F. Kennedy
Harvard University
Commencement 6/14/56

To accomplish this, the Institute of Politics would be a "non degree-granting program, which would strive in its central aim to bring together for mutual benefit scholars and practitioners in the work of government to the University, hold conferences to bring together governmental and academic people on major public issues, provide opportunity for men in public life to reflect on their experiences, write and lecture, and conduct other activities designed in part to inspire succeeding generations of young people of ability, courage, and conviction to enter public service through careers in politics and public affairs." With this charge President Pusey added a caveat that has always guided the Institute: all activities will "be conducted from a completely nonpartisan or from a bipartisan point of view."

Much of 1964 and 1965 would be spent on raising the endowment, working out the legal questions between Harvard and the Kennedy Library Corporation, and laying the groundwork. In October 1966, the incubation period ended. The Institute of Politics was ready to be born.

Any possible fears that the Institute of Politics would become just another sedate and quiet institution of reasoned academic discourse were quickly put to rest by the events that marked its first year. The resilience with which the infant Institute weathered its incredible highs and lows proved that it would truly become an integral stitch in the fabric of both Harvard and American political life.

On October 17, 1966, the years of planning and formulation were over and the Institute of Politics was ready to be unveiled to the world. On that day, the Institute's Senior Advisory Committee met for the first time and formally began operations. This body, chaired by Ambassador-at-Large Averill Harriman and with Michael Forrestal serving as Secretary, would provide direction and oversight to the lop. As Dick Neustadt said of the Committee at the time, "We will lean on it for common sense, and seek reaction." Among its other members were Jacqueline Kennedy, former Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, former British Ambassador to the United States Lord Harlech, Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, former Defense Secretary Robert Lovett, Dean David B. Truman of Columbia, and Senators John Sherman Cooper and Henry Jackson.

That evening, the political stars shone brightly at the newly built Holyoke Center as a dinner was held in honor of the new institute. At one of the grandest social occasions at Harvard in many years, eight Kennedys, four United States Senators, more than a dozen former members of the Kennedy Administration, the President of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and the President and the Faculty of Harvard dined on oysters Rockefeller, Endive a la Francaise, and roast tenderloin of beef Bordelaise.

Among the more than 80 guests were the ten Institute of Politics Fellows, the first in a long and distinguished line of Fellows who would come to Cambridge for a chance to get away from it all and find themselves as busy as ever. The Fellows Program, initially one year in duration, afforded those involved in government, politics, journalism, and other forms of public service the chance to spend time at the Institute of Politics connecting with the academic world and broadening their horizons. Through non-credit Study Groups taught by the Fellows, involvement in campus activities, and informal contact, the program afforded Harvard students the chance to learn from, question, and converse with some of the top practitioners of public service.

Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy welcomed the wide range of activities linking the worlds of ideas and action. They felt that some spark in their brother's years at Harvard had kindled his lifelong love of politics, and they hoped the Institute would touch other undergraduates in the same way, and inspire them to pursue the values and ideals of public service.

The first ten Fellows were greeted with a huge splash of publicity and articles about them in newspapers around the nation. Famous or not, the Fellows were only one of the two main connections that Neustadt saw between the IOP and the Harvard community. The second was a program of Honorary Associates, high-level visitors who would spend two or three days meeting with students and faculty. Neustadt described the program as, "Off the record, no speeches, no talks, no lectures. Just maximum exposure in the most informal way possible ... We're going to work them hard while they're here." Unfortunately, he did not realize just how hard the work would be.

On November 6, three weeks after the inauguration of the Institute Politics, its first Honorary Associate, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, arrived to begin his sojourn. He spent that Sunday visiting and chatting with students. The next day, he lunched with undergraduates in Quincy House and prepared to visit the Business School, his alma mater. As he stepped out of the door to enter his waiting car, McNamara was besieged by a jeering mob of 800 students organized by the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Another 25 students threw themselves under his car to prevent his getaway. In an attempt to calm the crowd, McNamara leaped to the hood of his automobile and agreed to answer a few questions from the protesters. His responses, however, were drowned out by the boos of the throng.

Growing increasingly angry, the Secretary shouted into the megaphone of an SDS organizer, "I spent four of the happiest years at the Berkeley campus doing some of the same things you are doing here. But there was one important difference, I was tougher and more courteous." Answered by calls of "fascist" and "murderer," he added, "And I was tougher then and I'm tougher now!" As fist-fights broke out between supporters and opponents of the Vietnam War, the Secretary was led away by a phalanx of policemen and guided to safety through underground tunnels by then IOP Special Assistant for Undergraduate Programs, and now Congressman, Barney Frank.

The story was carried on the network news programs that evening, in the weekly newsmagazines, and in papers all around the nation. The reaction was immediate and negative. Editorials around the nation blasted the protesters: "Collegiate clowns" (New York World Journal Tribune), "Harvard Hoodlums" (Detroit News), "Neanderthal mentality" (Atlanta Journal), "a mindless mob" (Detroit News), and "Morons at Harvard" (Sioux Falls Argus Leader).

Dean John U. Munro apologized in a letter to the Secretary and within 24 hours of the incident 2,700 students, two-thirds of the student body, had signed a petition apologizing for the behavior of their fellow students. The Institute of Politics, in its first public event, had made a formidable, but not altogether favorable, impression.

Following this raucous beginning, it was not difficult for the Honorary Associates Program to proceed much more smoothly. By the time U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg, another member of the Johnson Administration's foreign policy team, arrived for his stay in February of the next year, the Institute of Politics was working with the SDS to make sure a repeat performance was not in the works. Goldberg held a two-hour, question-and-answer period with critics in Sanders Theater. Among the other Honorary Associates who came to Harvard at two-week intervals for the rest of that school year were U.S. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, Michigan Governor George Romney, and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Though the visits proceeded without any further glitches and were well received, it was decided that the vast amount of scarce Institute resources devoted to the Honorary Associates Program was hurting other areas of programming. The program was allowed to die, though it was resurrected in modified form in 1975 as the Visiting Fellows Program.

As the Fellows, Study Groups, and Honorary Associates programs moved forward in the first years of the IOP, the Institute was housed in the famous "little yellow house" at 78 Mt. Auburn Street. However, plans were being laid to move the Institute of Politics out of these cramped quarters and into a more spacious complex that would include the JFK Library, the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard's Center for International Affairs, and the departments of Government and Economics. In the midst of the anguish that surrounded President Kennedy's assassination, the MBTA rail yards that the President had previously been told were unavailable, suddenly became available for use through an act of the Massachusetts state legislature. In December 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy personally selected architect I.M. Pei to design the entire complex. The finished plan called for a 12-acre series of three buildings that would encircle a huge glass pyramid (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the glass pyramid Pei designed for the Louvre 20 years later). A deal was inked with Howard Johnson to build a 20-story hotel adjacent to the complex to house some of the one million visitors expected annually. However, delays began to take their toll as the MBTA searched for a new site to replace the land they were giving up. Eventually, fears of rampant tourism in Harvard Square caused the original plans to be shelved. The Presidential Library was built on Columbia Point in Dorchester while, in 1978, the Institute of Politics and the Kennedy School of Government moved into the new Littauer Center of Public Administration on the former rail yards site.

The Institute of Politics had barely had a chance to catch its breath from the controversy surrounding Secretary McNamara's visit when it was once again thrust foursquare into public scrutiny in a way that called into question the IOP's very purpose and mission. In an article by British journalist Henry Fairlie that appeared on January 16, 1967 in the Sunday London Telegraph and on the front page of the Washington Post, the Institute of Politics was charged with being nothing more than a "recruiting college" for a future Kennedy Administration. The article claimed that the Kennedy family had improperly "moved in" on Harvard and had used the IOP's endowment as a bribe to exert its influence over the University.

The article was distributed nationally by the Washington Post Los Angeles Times Syndicate (which in and of itself might have disproved Fairlie's conspiracy theory since the publishers of both newspapers served on the Senior Advisory Committee). A flurry of rebuttals from Kennedy School Dean Don Price and Neustadt and surrebuttals from Fairlie served to heat up interest in the controversy and garnered independent coverage of the question in publications such as the New York Times and Time magazine.

Fairlie's articles, while containing a number of misrepresentations and inaccuracies, were more scandal-mongering and misunderstandings of American politics and academia than outright lies. The Institute of Politics, from its conception and inception, had always been bipartisan in its staff, Fellows, and programs. There had long been a powerful connection between the Kennedys and Harvard. One Harvard economist reminisced that visiting the White House during the early days of Jack Kennedy's presidency "was like dropping in on a Harvard faculty conference." Asserting that Harvard personnel would staff much of any future Kennedy Administration was not exactly a scoop.

As the first turbulent academic year of the Institute of Politics came to a close, Neustadt and the others affiliated with the Institute of Politics could fairly wonder whether it would continue to be the target of screaming mobs and accusatory journalists or whether the IOP would settle into a boring routine of working out the kinks in an accepted formula. The truth turned out to be neither. The trial by fire was exactly what the Institute had hoped for. Neustadt knew that the day that the IOP was launched: "We cannot expand until we know what we are doing. The way to learn is by trying. So we begin, this year, experimentally, and so we shall proceed." He continued, "In formal terms the experimental phase should be behind us ... some five or six years hence. But in real terms we never will be finished with experimentation."

In its first year the Institute of Politics did not walk a straight and narrow path, but its success and challenges demonstrated the roads of experimentation and progress that the Institute would continue to take in the future.