President Barack Obama honored John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, just days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the late president.
The president and First Lady Michelle Obama were joined by former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Kennedy gravesite for a short, solemn wreath-laying ceremony, which was broadcast on CNN and other networks.
Members of the Kennedy family also attended.
The two presidents and first ladies placed a wreath in front of the eternal flame, bowed their head for a moment and then placed their hands over their hearts as taps was played. No remarks were given. In the broadcast, the most pronounced sounds other than taps were those of camera shutters and footsteps.
The dignitaries spent a few moments greeting the Kennedy family and other guests after the ceremony.
Presidents Obama and Clinton and helped Ethel Kennedy, the widow of the late Robert Kennedy, to her seat when they first arrived at the gravesite.
The guests included Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Jack Schlossberg, the son of Caroline Kennedy and John Kennedy's grandson, according to an account by the New York Post's Geoff Earle that was distributed by the White House.
Schlossberg "has his grandfather's hair," according to Earle's account.
Following the ceremony, "the mood was immediately light," Earle wrote, with Obama greeting several Kennedy family members and taking the time to hold a baby, who was later identified by the White House to be the great-grandchild of Robert Kennedy.
The Clintons did not return to the White House with the Obamas.
- Boston Globe: Visitors to JFK Grave Mourn Loss, the Way Things Were
Earlier in the day, Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States government, to 16 people, including Bill Clinton, women's rights activist Gloria Steinem, country music singer Loretta Lynn and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
Kennedy pioneered the modern version of the medal. Because of his assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the medal to the inaugural 31 recipients.
Obama spoke on President Kennedy's legacy of service at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History at a dinner for Medal of Freedom awardees Wednesday night.
There, he praised Kennedy's "square-jawed idealism," according to a press pool report by Earle the White House distributed late Wednesday.
“He stays with us in our imagination, not because he left us too soon, but because he embodied the character of the people that he led – resilient, resolute, fearless, and fun loving, defiant in the face of impossible odds, and most of all determined to make the world anew,” Obama said.
- HuffPost Politics: Obama Honors Medal of Freedom Recipients at Black-Tie Dinner Event
Obama, during his 2008 campaign, enjoyed the support of Ted and Caroline Kennedy, the late president's youngest brother and daughter, respectively.
The sitting president quoted Kennedy earlier this year in the State of the Union address, saying, "the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress. … It is my task to report the State of the Union — to improve it is the task of all."
Arlington National Cemetery is expecting large crowds this week.
Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, at age 46. The 50th anniversary of that event is Friday.
- Los Angeles Times: Witnesses to Tragedy: Three Dallas Stories
Five decades later, conspiracy theories abound as to exactly what happened that day, and people the world over who were alive at the time still remember where they were when they first heard the news.
Arlington National Cemetery Executive Director Patrick Hallinan and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, are slated to participate in a brief wreath-laying ceremony Friday morning, on the actual anniversary of Kennedy's death.
And the Irish Defence Forces 37th Cadet Class, which provided the honor guard during Kennedy's funeral, will hold a remembrance ceremony at the cemetery on Monday.
Late last month, the eternal flame at the Kennedy family gravesite was restored after a six-month upgrade.
During the maintenance, a temporary flame — lit from the permanent burner — was on display for the public.
Kennedy first formally visited Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1961, to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, according to the cemetery's website.
That day, the president spoke to more than 5,000 people at the cemetery's Memorial Amphitheater.
"We meet in quiet commemoration of a historic day of peace," he said, according to the cemetery's website. "In an age that threatens the survival of freedom, we join together to honor those who made our freedom possible. ... It is a tragic fact, that war still more destructive and still sanguinary followed [World War II]; that man's capacity to devise new ways of killing his fellow men have far outstripped his capacity to live in peace with his fellow man."
In November 1963, 42-year-old Clifton Pollard dug Kennedy's grave. He made $3.01 an hour.
"Now they're going to come and put him right here in this grave I'm making up," Pollard said at the time, according to a famous account by the New York Herald Tribune. "You know, it's an honor just for me to do this."