Obama pays tribute to JFK’s legacy

President honours Kennedy ahead of 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas

US president Barack Obama paid tribute to the late president John F Kennedy last night, saying that 50 years after his death he stood for posterity as he did in life, being "young and bold and daring."

Speaking in front of members of the Kennedy family ahead of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination tomorrow, Obama praised his legacy of public service and his initiative in establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award that can be bestowed in the United States.

"He stays with us in our imagination not because he left us too soon, but because he embodied the character of the people he led," he said at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

Among the members of the Kennedy family attending last night's ceremony were the late president's sister Jean Kennedy Smith, a former ambassador to Ireland, and Ethel, widow of his brother Bobby.

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Mr Obama said Kennedy's brothers and sisters have left the US "a more gentle and compassionate country" and noted that the legacy of public service continued in the family with Kennedy's daughter Caroline, the new US ambassador to Japan, and his great-nephew, Congressman Joe Kennedy.

“This is a legacy of a man who could have retreated to a life of luxury and ease, but who chose to live a life in the arena – sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it,” said the president.

At the start of a series of memorials leading to the anniversary of Kennedy's death, Obama presented medals of freedom to former president Bill Clinton, television star Oprah Winfrey and 14 others.

The president and his wife Michelle along with Clinton and his wife Hillary, Obama's first secretary of state, laid a wreath at Kennedy's grave at Arlington Cemetery.

Each president held a hand of 85-year-old Ethel as they walked up to the steps of the burial site marked with the eternal flame.

On Monday, members of the 37th class of Irish Army cadets who formed a guard of honour at Kennedy's funeral will return to the grave to mark the 50th anniversary. They will be joined by members of the current cadet class.

The cadets were asked to perform a silent drill at Kennedy’s funeral by his widow Jackie after they impressed the president on his visit to Ireland in June 1963.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent