November 11th, 2013


JFK's Final Days: November 11, 1963

November 11, 1963 (50 years ago today) was then, like now, Veterans Day, and President John F. Kennedy attended a ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony. Below is a video of the ceremony, in two parts:

According to author Thurston Clarke, while Kennedy was at Arlington, he told Representative Hale Boggs "This is one of the really beautiful places on earth. I could stay here forever."

It was also "Daddy's day" at the White House school. President Kennedy was unable to attend with Caroline's class, but he did visit the school after the ceremony and had the French teacher repeat a demonstration that the children had given for parents earlier in which the teacher would point to an object and the children would should out its name in French. Kennedy praised French teacher Jacqueline Hirsch for her "many miracles." That afternoon Jacqueline Hirsch took her 10 year old son Mike along with Caroline Kennedy to the zoo and taught the children to say "we went to the zoo." Clarke gives this account of Caroline's repetition of the phrase to his father and how it inspired him to want to learn French. Clarke writes, at page 289 of his his recent book entitled JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President:

Caroline repeated her new French phrase and he asked if it was the name of a bird. She informed him that it meant "We went to the zoo."

"Well, I think it's time I learned French." Turning to Hirsh, he asked, "If you have me a French lesson, how would you do it?"

She suggested he could start by reading the French edition of Profiles in Courage. He was already familiar with its content, so they could concentrate on conversation and grammar. During each lesson he could summarize what he had read in French. He told her he wanted to be fluent by June, when he would going to Normandy for the twentieth anniversary of D-Day. (He also wanted to surprise Jackie, whose facility with languages had left him somewhat jealous.)

He was serious enough to squeeze four lessons into the next ten days. He was a difficult student, self-conscious and restless, getting up and down, impatient to learn. "I can't wait to surprise the world," he told Hirsch. "It's always good to improve at anything." He ruminated a long time before producing a sentence that was grammatically correct but atrociously pronounced, and he interrupted so often that she warned that if he wanted to be fluent by June, he would have to concentrate more. She praised his grammar and was honest about his accent. His goal, he said, was to sound like a French person and "to be able to do it [speak French] just perfectly." She estimated that might take at least a year. "I bet I do it in six months," he boasted.