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Exhibit rekindles Europeaninterest in JFK

Vienna museum offers eclectic view of president
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s a limousine with an American flag — not the one that carried John F. Kennedy to his death in Dallas, but the Cadillac that once whisked him around Vienna.

There’s a plush red sofa he once shared with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. There’s a 1960s board game — “The Exciting New Game of the Kennedys.” And there’s Marilyn — Manson, not Monroe — freakishly re-enacting the assassination in a music video.

A colorful new exhibition of Andy Warhol artworks and other Kennedy memorabilia is rekindling JFK fever in Austria, where the late president staged a historic 1961 showdown with Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War.

The exhibition at the Vienna Museum, titled simply “John F. Kennedy,” opens Thursday and runs through April 24, offering an eclectic glimpse of Kennedy’s presidency through the prism of his June 1961 summit with Khrushchev.

The show comes as President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to discuss Ukraine, the European Union’s eastern expansion and other issues at a meeting next month in Bratislava, Slovakia, less than an hour’s drive from Vienna.

That summit surely won’t pack anything like the drama that gripped the Austrian capital and drew 1,500 journalists when Kennedy and Khrushchev had their first face-to-face meeting after the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane, freezing U.S.-Soviet Union relations.

“Each step, each gesture, each twitch of a facial muscle of the two statesmen was subject to the interpretation of the international media,” organizers of the exhibition said in a statement. The display is being shown in collaboration with Berlin’s German Historical Museum.

Kennedy insisted it wasn’t a summit, preferring instead to call it “an informal exchange of views.” Afterward, though, he conceded it was “a very sober two days.”

Within two months of the Vienna showdown, the Berlin Wall went up, and in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought Washington and Moscow to the brink of nuclear war before the Soviets withdrew their weapons from the island.

Items on view capture the sense of urgency, among them a poster bearing likenesses of the two leaders and an exhortation in German: “Pray for peace in the world!”

Beneath large screens showing grainy black-and-white footage from the summit, is a framed letter sent anonymously to Jacqueline Kennedy, who accompanied the president to Vienna. Signed in a shaky hand, “Hungarian people,” it reads simply, “S.O.S.!”

Among the highlights is a once-secret, now declassified White House briefing paper advising Kennedy what to expect from Khrushchev.

“By any standards, Khrushchev is an extraordinary person,” it reads. “He is simultaneously a handshaking, backslapping, grass-roots politician who could draw a good vote in any democracy, and a shrewd and ruthless manipulator of power in the best totalitarian tradition.”

“While he is convinced that communism must triumph throughout the world, even apart from the suggestion of the possible destruction of the U.S.S.R., he is probably voicing his own real feelings when he says that this triumph should not be achieved at the price of mass devastation.”

But the document, like the exhibition itself, ends on a lighter note. Khrushchev, it says, was convinced he “is a good and humane man. Even by our standards, in some ways he is.”

Taking the edge off the display are items such as the Kennedy board game, in which players assumed the role of a member of the Kennedy clan and competed for national prominence. There’s also a series of Warhol portraits and the 18-foot black stretch Cadillac Fleetwood limo with tail fins and whitewall tires that shuttled the Kennedys around Vienna.

Encased in glass are the china and silver used for their breakfasts, complete with stale croissants, and the menu for the state dinner at Schoenbrunn Palace: soup, torte of asparagus tips, jellied fish, stuffed peppers and beefsteak with mushrooms.

A special section, “Four Days That Shook the World,” marks Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Tucked amid a plethora of ballistics reports is a heart-wrenching letter of condolence to his widow scribbled by a Viennese child who joined the world in mourning the end of “Camelot.”