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July 21, 1999

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First Lady



July 21, 1999

Let me share with you some of the words John F. Kennedy Jr. said the last time he was at the White House. It was March of 1998, and he had come to Washington for a screening of Tom Hanks' 12-hour HBO special, "From the Earth to the Moon," about the history of the Apollo space program.

"I'm honored to be here at the White House," he said, "just a few yards from where President Kennedy made the decision to send Americans to the moon and return them safely back to the U.S. before the decade of the 1960s was over. In hindsight, the choice looked obvious, but at the time, it was, in a very real sense, President Kennedy's alone, made against the opposition of conservatives who thought the priority should be warheads, and liberals who called the project 'Moondoggle' and believed the money should be better spent on social services ...

"But today, there is an American flag on a windless plain on the moon, because the challenge to explore space stirred something deep and indelible in the American character. And while all the dire predictions never came true, and the technological payoff can be found in everything -- from computers to freeze-dried foods to scratch-proof sunglasses -- we are richer as a nation with the vivid memory of that first step on the moon."

Kennedy went on to call the space program his father's "proudest legacy." This week, we celebrate that legacy by marking the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11, which landed a man on the moon for the first time, and we salute Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. Today, every NASA astronaut recognizes and remembers President Kennedy's legacy. So, it was with special sadness this weekend that Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke at the Kennedy Space Center after hearing the shocking news that John Kennedy's airplane had disappeared over Martha's Vineyard. "Our hearts," he said, "go out to the family that has started so much, achieved so much, suffered and sacrificed so much, and now has even further uncertainty."

Indeed, the hearts of the entire nation go out to the Kennedy family, as well as to the family of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren. For just as we have carried the picture of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, so, too, have we carried the picture of John Kennedy Jr., just 3 years old, saluting the cordon that carried his father's coffin into St. Matthew's Cathedral that bleak November day, 36 years ago.

As an adult, John's public persona was tinged with glamour and adventure. But those who knew him well knew a man who carried his father's and mother's legacy with grace -- a man who lived his life according to the Biblical edict so often repeated by his grandmother Rose: "And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required." His own legacy surely will include a strong devotion to public service and the rights of the underprivileged, the underrepresented and the underserved. I met John and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, many times, but I'll never forget that final visit to the White House for the HBO screening. Everyone was moved by John's words about his father's contribution to the space program.

But what I remember most came after all the other guests had gone home, when we asked John and Carolyn whether they would like a tour of the White House. John, as it turned out, had not been there since 1963, and had trouble sorting out what he remembered from what he had seen only in pictures. We showed him the room where he slept, and we walked around the grounds where he and his sister played. In the Oval Office, he saw the President's desk -- the same desk under which he was caught by a photographer playing hide-and-seek as a toddler -- and the garden named in honor of his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy.

The John Kennedy I met at the White House was elegant and eloquent -- a man who had lost so much as a child, but who went on to live a life filled with love, adventure, accomplishment and, as he said, "relative normalcy."

From the Special Olympics to the Peace Corps, from laws that have raised the minimum wage and extended health insurance to more working families, to promises that have sent men -- and now women -- into space, the Kennedy family for decades has inspired us, led us and moved our nation forward. My prayers -- and the prayers of the entire nation -- are with them today.


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