David Jackson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - President Obama paid tribute Wednesday to Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, and both of them honored a presidential icon, John F. Kennedy.
As a bugler played Taps, Obama, Clinton and spouses Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton stood with hands over hearts before the eternal flame that illuminates Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
The solemn ceremony and other events began a series of memorials across the nation leading into Friday, the 50th anniversary of the assassination that transformed American politics and culture.
The delegation to the Kennedy grave site in Arlington included members of the Kennedy family, as well as a former official who may soon seek the presidency herself: former first lady and secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At the site, Obama and Bill Clinton escorted Ethel Kennedy, widow of slain JFK brother Robert F. Kennedy. Each president held one of her hands and helped her climb some stairs.
During a wordless ceremony on a sunny but chilly day, the Obamas and the Clintons placed a wreath before the twin graves of President Kennedy and wife Jacqueline.
Jack Schlossberg, a grandson of President Kennedy, greeted dignitaries as they arrived at the grave site.
The presidential couples later greeted members of the family. "Good to see you," Obama told one group amid smiles and hugs. The president and first lady also read some of the inscriptions etched into a memorial at the grave site.
The Obamas and the Clintons rode to the cemetery in the same limousine; they left separately.
Months before his death, Kennedy had visited Arlington House at the cemetery, a spot just above his future grave. He reputedly said, "I could stay here forever."
Jacqueline Kennedy made the decision to put the eternal flame at her husband's resting place.
Like their presidential predecessors, Obama and Clinton have often paid homage to the memory of the charismatic Kennedy.
The Kennedy family gave Obama crucial support during his 2008 presidential campaign. The endorsement of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the late president's brother, helped Obama win that year's Democratic primary race over Hillary Clinton. Edward Kennedy is also buried at the Arlington grave site.
This year, Obama made Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter, the ambassador to Japan.
During a June 19 speech in Berlin - site of of Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of 1963, just months before his death - Obama said his predecessor's words "are timeless because they call upon us to care more about things than just our own self-comfort, about our own city, about our own country."
Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign featured pictures of him as a 16-year-old member of Boys Nation shaking hands with President Kennedy in 1963, casting it as a symbolic passing of the torch.
Even Republican presidents have hailed the Kennedy mystique. President Reagan, for example, cited JFK's support for tax cuts.