President Barack Obama was in Dorchester on Sunday to receive a well-earned honor from the family of President John F. Kennedy. (Note: We will not affix the unfortunate adjective “former” to either name in the space.) The Profile in Courage Award dinner drew more than 750 people to the tip of the Columbia Point peninsula overlooking Dorchester Bay.
The evening’s events afforded a welcome, if all-to-brief, reprieve from the chaos and discord of his successor administration, one that has descended even deeper into the abyss in the hours since the Obamas decamped from our neighborhood.
It was fun while it lasted. Gov. Deval Patrick and David Letterman dined with Michelle Obama and Joe Biden. James Taylor serenaded with his most familiar ballads. The songsmith led revelers in a rendition of “La Marseillaise,” a fitting salute on a day in which the French Republic delivered a sharp rebuke to the rise of nationalism.
Then President Obama delivered a 30-minute address that was gracious, reflective, humble, and learned. It was a thoughtful review that connected the Camelots with the president’s characteristic cadence and calm.
“In many ways, the times that President Kennedy confronted were far more perilous than the ones that we confront today,” Obama argued, a position that might—in point of fact— be true, but which seemed slightly off the mark in the context of our present national calamity.
The president’s remarks never soared— nor did he seek to overreach with his rhetoric. Despite our most earnest wishes to the contrary, he is no longer the commander-in-chief. Of this fact he is keenly aware. The Kennedy Library event offered him a well-timed forum to try his hand at finding his post-presidency voice.
“I take this honor that you have bestowed on me here tonight as a reminder that even out of office I must do all that I can to advance the spirit of service that JFK represents,” the president told the room. He re-affirmed the principles that animate that shared spirit, one that his political sponsor— Sen. Ted Kennedy— recognized early and with great consequence, in the young senator from Illinois.
“I know that the values and the progress that we cherish are not inevitable – they are fragile, in need of constant renewal. I’ve said before that that I believe what Dr. King said is true, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. But I’ve also said that it does not bend on its own… It bends because we bend it. We are constantly having to make a choice, because progress is fragile.”
Among those in the audience soaking up the president’s words were a table filled with Boston teenagers, including several from Dorchester. The president signed copies of his book “Dreams From My Father” and took photos with the teens before his remarks.
“Overall, it was the most amazing experience of my life,” wrote one of the students, Carolyn, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who attends Boston International Newcomers Academy. "I feel very lucky that I was chosen to go to the event and meet a courageous man like Barack Obama.”
You said it, Carolyn. We were all lucky to have had the Obamas as our first couple for eight years. They are deeply missed.