Meandering past photos of the young Kennedy clan, Jacqueline’s signature dresses, campaign posters and a replica of the oval office Kennedy used is required fare for children growing up around Boston and thousands of tourists every year.
But tension is building at this venerated Boston institution, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The library’s long-time and widely respected director, Tom Putnam, is stepping down. His resignation is the latest in a string of departures that coincide with the tenure of Heather Campion, the CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a private organization that raises money to support the federally owned library.
“It’s a much more serious situation than people understand,” said Tom McNaught, the foundation’s former executive director. Campion replaced McNaught following his retirement.
McNaught says departed employees have taken an archive of institutional wisdom with them, wisdom that will be lacking as the museum prepares future exhibits and a celebration in 2017 of what would have been President Kennedy’s 100th birthday.
But some members of the foundation’s board say change is inevitable, especially if there are differences of opinion about the library’s future.
“You can’t dismiss this all as part of the strategic plan or bringing in new talent,” McNaught said. “It’s serious and the loss of Tom Putnam certainly brought that home to everybody.”
Putnam has spent 16 years at the library. He launched the forums that bring in top speakers for discussions that cross the political divide, and he began work to make the museum’s collection available online.
Putnam has clashed in recent months with Campion, whose organization pays for projects beyond Putnam’s budget from the National Archives. Several former employees say they left because Campion is difficult to work with. She declined an interview for this story, but Campion told Radio Boston last year that her mission would be to continue JFK’s passion for new ideas and his embrace of the promise of the future.
“He was also all about the best, getting the best people, getting the ideas, getting the best of everything,” Campion said. “I think his museum reflects that and it’s our job to continue to carry that spirit on in the next 50 years of the library.”
Many of Putnam’s supporters are calling on the board to find out why the library is now losing talented staff.
“I’m just heartsick over this news,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a historian at the University of New Hampshire who used the library archives while writing a book on Kennedy condolence messages. “It’s just a tremendous loss to the historical community and to the public at large.”
Deborah Leff, who preceded Putnam as the library’s director, says she’s confident the library will weather this storm, but she’s sorry to see Putnam leave.
“He’s contributed greatly to the excellence of the Kennedy Library,” she said. “It will probably continue to be a first-rate institution, but there’s no replacing a leader of that quality.”
Some of Putnam’s colleagues say he mastered the balance between preserving Kennedy’s legacy and making sure that legacy was historically accurate.
Tim Naftali, a former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, says Putnam fought for open access to Kennedy files that either the family or federal agencies had not made available.
“I just hope that we’re not going to see a return to the old Kennedy Library that was reluctant to talk about the president’s flaws as well as his manifold strengths,” Naftali said. “You can believe that Kennedy was a great president and also accept that he was imperfect.”
It’s not clear if a dispute about the library’s mission was part of the reason Putnam left. In a statement, he says he’s proud of his accomplishments but has decided it’s time to move on.
Messages left for a half dozen of the founation’s board members were not returned or members declined to comment on the record. A few people say the atmosphere at the library has become toxic. There’s no word on what changes may be in the works to address turmoil at the library.
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