JFK anniversary: Barack Obama pays tribute to the legacy of John F Kennedy
President Barack Obama praises former president John F Kennedy for his "sober, square-jawed idealism as the US begins three days of mourning and commemoration on the 50th anniversary of his assassination
President Barack Obama paid tribute to the legacy of John F Kennedy on Wednesday night, calling his slain Democratic predecessor a man "defiant in the face of impossible odds and most of all determined to make the world anew".
As America begins three days of mourning and commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Mr Obama addressed a black-tie dinner for winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award Kennedy established.
Speaking before an audience that included Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, the president praised Kennedy for his "sober, squared-jawed idealism".
"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," Mr Obama said.
"That's why 50 years later John F Kennedy stands for posterity as he did in life: young, bold and daring.
"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, not settling for what is but rather for what might be."
Mr Obama, who was two-years-old when Kennedy was killed, honoured the "legacy of service that the Kennedy family continue to this day".
He cited Caroline Kennedy, the fallen president's daughter who this week took up post as US ambassador to Japan, and Joe Kennedy III, the 33-year-old freshman congressman.
Mr Obama was introduced by Jack Schlossberg, a 20-year-old Yale student and the only grandson of the John F Kennedy.
Mr Schlossberg urged his generation to "remember a president who not only welcomed the challenges of his day but who also saw the wisdom of recognising vision and passion wherever they are found".
Earlier in the day Mr Obama placed a wreath at Kennedy's grave in Arlington national cemetery, pausing before the flame that has burned in the slain president's memory for five decades.
The ceremony brought together the three most famous clans in Democratic politics – the Obamas, the Clintons and the Kennedys – in quiet reflection at the grave site.
Mr Obama held the hand of Ethel Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy's widow, and at one point comforted a crying Kennedy baby.
He also bestowed the Presidential Medals of Freedom, an award was established by Kennedy in 1963 with the intention of recognising those who had made "an especially meritorious contribution" to the American life.
Kennedy laboured over the first set of honorees – his selection ranged from a blind teacher to a black singer, a photographer to a Supreme Court justice – but was killed before he could give the awards.
Two weeks after the assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson gave out the medals to Kennedy's choices, adding an additional recipient: the murdered president himself.
Mr Obama has handed out the medals before but said this year "this year, it's just a little more special because this marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award."
He presented the medal to Mr Clinton, saying that his Democratic predecessor "represents what's the very best in America."
"I'm grateful, Bill, as well for the advice and counsel that you've offered me on and off the golf course," Mr Obama said to laughter.
Although Mr Obama has drawn comparisons with Kennedy, it is Mr Clinton who can claim the stronger connection. The former president grew up in age of idealism about public service sparked by Kennedy's election and a 16-year-old Mr Clinton shook the president's hand at the White House months before his death.
Mr Obama gave the medal to 15 others, including Oprah and Ben Bradlee, the former Washington Post editor who led the paper during its exposure of the Watergate scandal.
Americans will gather at commemorative events across the country in the coming days, culminating in a ceremony at Daley Plaza in Dallas on Friday, the scene of the assassination in 1963.
Security is expected to be heavy as around 5,000 people gather to commemorate the assassination and listen to excerpts of some of Kennedy's most famous speeches being read.
Flags will fly at half mast and bells will ring out at 12.30pm, the time that the first of the three shots rang out.