On October 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Amherst College to make a speech that paid tribute to poet Robert Frost and spoke about the vital importance of the arts in public life. He also challenged the young men who were present to forsake privilege in the interest of public service.
JFK’s Amherst speech marked his final public address. Less than a month later he was assassinated in Dallas. A number of Amherst seniors, who had been moved and captivated by our young president’s words, were stunned by his death. And they were moved by Amherst’s then-president, Calvin Plimpton, when he gathered students in the college chapel and spoke to them after Kennedy’s assassination.
”Let us stand a moment to honor him,” Plimpton said. “Then let us go and do the work he couldn’t complete.”
Dozens of Amherst students took up the gauntlet that Kennedy threw down. Dozens committed to the Peace Corps and others to pro-bono legal aid, journalism on the front lines of the 1980’s war in El Salvador – and as a Nobel Prize winning economist who advanced penetrating theories that have led to policy changes on how to address poverty.
The Billings Farm and Museum’s Woodstock Film Series will screen Boston documentary filmmaker Bestor Cram’s “JFK: The Final Speech” between November 19th and November 22nd, the 58th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. Information is available at the Billings Farm website.
Like the Amherst men, I was also deeply influenced by JFK’s vision and his call to service. That’s a long story – but I believe that millions of Americans were similarly moved by our young president’s power and charisma, as a leader for our modern times on the world stage.
One of the people attracted to Kennedy’s message was poet Robert Frost, who called Amherst College home for much of his life, first as a teacher and later, starting in the 1940’s, as poet-in-residence. Kennedy invited Frost as featured guest speaker at his 1961 inauguration. Frost was also a frequent White House guest and confidant of the president – until he returned from a triumphant journey to the Soviet Union in 1962 that included a surprise meeting and conversation with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
The Soviet leader engaged the quintessential American poet in an animated political dialogue about “noble rivalries” between Russia and the United States and all appeared to go well – until Frost, tired from his journey and pressured by an eager press upon his return, commented that “Khrushchev said he feared for us because of our lot of liberals. He thought that we’re too liberal to fight — he thinks we will sit on one hand and then the other.”
JFK’s Interior Secretary Stuart Udall was with Frost in Russia and he said he was astonished by Frost’s “blurting out” that, in fact, “put words in Khrushchev’s mouth.” The Soviet Premier never said any such thing.
JFK was hugely embarrassed by Frost’s blunder to the press – he was dealing with threats against the U.S. from the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other challenges. And he felt hurt.
The two men never reconciled before Frost’s death, at the age of 88, in January 1963. Frost said that he had started to write an apology letter but his “heart wasn’t in it” and he never came up with the right words – an unusual admission for this master of concise language who admired Kennedy’s own love of metaphor and the spoken word.
JFK’s posthumous Amherst tribute to Robert Frost paid remarkable homage to the poet, nevertheless.
“Our national strength matters,” Kennedy said, “but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost…and it is hardly an accident that Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself.”
“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” Kennedy said. “When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
“JFK: The Final Speech” is not a perfect film - it spends a bit too much time with a couple of the Amherst alums – but it captures potent images and resonant ideas from this fleeting moment, just days before tragedy struck at the heart of America – and its exciting but complicated journey toward President Kennedy’s still-evolving New Frontier.