October 27, 2013

JFK on poetry and power: a cub reporter’s account

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned ...

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned out to be his last public performance in Massachusetts. At the Boston Globe I was a cub reporter just a year out of Yale when I got my first presidential assignment.
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Launches New Library

Kennedy at Amherst Honors Poet Frost


AMHERST—President Kennedy paid tribute here Saturday to the late Robert Frost and his work, a contribution, he said, “not to our size, but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs, but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension.”

For the President, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Amherst, and took part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the college’s new $3.5 million Robert Frost Library, it was an unusual day of departure from the problems of politics and policy.

“This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost,” he told the special degree convocation, “offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians, as well as by others.”

Main themes of his speech were the role of art in the life of the nation and the redeeming influence of poetry on power.

“Our national strength matters,” he told his audience of 2700 In Amherst’s Indoor Athletic Field and hundreds more who watched him from other buildings over closed-circuit : television, “but the spirit which Informs and control sour strength matters just as much.”

“This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

Mr. Kennedy, who was a close friend of Frost in the last few years o! the poet’s life, accepted Frost’s proclaimed
vision of “poetry as a means of saving power from itself.”

“When power leads man towards arrogance,” Mr. Kennedy said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and the diversity of his existence, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic truths, which must serve as touchstones of our judgment.”

Mr. Kennedy made it clear later in the morning’s ceremonies that he saw in Frost’s poetry, not an antithesis to power, but a complement.

In his remarks at the groundbreaking, the President regaled the thousands who stood around him, with recollections about Frost’s “hard-boiled” approach to life and his hopes for the United States.

“He once said that America is the country you leave only when you want to go out and lick another country. He was not particularly belligerent in his relations, his human relations, but felt very strongly that the United States should be a country of power and force, and use that power and force wisely.”

frost-smThe President added with a broad grin, “He once said to me not to let the Harvard in me get to be too important. So we have followed that advice.”

Archibald MacLeish, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet joined President Kennedy in receiving an honorary doctor of laws and. in honoring Frost.

MacLeish spoke on the mystery of Frost’s theme, and the legacy of the poet, which goes beyond the quantity of his reputation and the number of people who knew his name or recognized him on the street.

MacLeish said that only “months after his death, the ‘public image,’ as the industry would call it, has begun to change like the elms in Autumn, leaving enormous branches black and clean against the sky.”

Borrowing a line from Amherst’s poetess, Emily Dickinson, MacLeish called Frost “too intrinsic for renown—intrinsic for renown to touch. , Something in the fame resists the fame, as burning maple logs—rock maple anyway—resist the blaze.”

When Frost talked of what honor meant to him, he spoke of leaving behind him: “a few poems it would be hard to get rid of.”

“Poems are speaking voices,” MacLeish explained. “A poem that ls hard to get rid of is a voice that is hard to get rid of. And a voice that Is hard to get rid of, is a man.

“What Frost wanted for himself in the midst of all that praise was what Keats had wanted for himself in the midst of no praise at all: To be among the English poets at his death—the poets of the English tongue.”

He added later: “To be among the English poets is to BE—to go on being. Frost wanted to go on being. And he has.”

A large part of President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst were devoted to the responsibility of private colleges to the country.

His invitation to speak at Amherst Saturday had come from the chairman of Amherst’s Board of Trustees, John J. McCloy.

“When the chairman of our Disarmament Agency Committee,” the President said, “who has labored so long and hard—Governor Stevenson’s assistant during the very difficult days at the United Nations during the Cuban crisis, a public servant of so many years-asks oil invites the President of the United States, there is only one response. So I am glad to be here.”

Citing Amherst’s long tradition of public service, Kennedy reminded his audience, “privilege is here, and with
privilege goes responsibility.

“There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty,” Mr. Kennedy stated, “and unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life—unless they are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy the understanding, the compassion—unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions on which our democracy is based are bound to be fallible.”

By the time the President and the officers of the college went outside for the groundbreaking, a warm sun bathed the campus of Ivy dressed red brick, where Robert Frost taught and lecture off and on from 1917 until his death.

Podcast • October 5, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two

James Douglass is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot ...

James Douglass
is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill the president and stop his turn toward peace, toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and exiting the war in Vietnam.

The very thought is appalling and should be unbelievable — of an anti-democratic insurrection that could go unacknowledged and unpunished in the United States for 50 years. But James Douglass is not alone in his suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the president and son of his Attorney General, has called the Douglass version the best book on the subject. In a remarkably under-noticed public conversation in Dallas last January — hosted by Charlie Rose of PBS, but not broadcast — RFK Jr. recounted his father’s view that the Warren Commmission inquiry on JFK’s assassination “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Further, he said, the Kennedy family long ago rejected the official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin.” His father was “fairly convinced,” said RFK Jr., that others were involved. “Organized crime, Cubans?” Charlie Rose asked. “Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. answered.

In this second half of our long conversation James Douglass is recounting disparate voices — of a Trappist monk, a dissident film-maker, and JFK’s White House counsellor — that contributed to his reconstruction of the narrative. Douglass is building obviously on Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991), both celebrated and pilloried, which made it the story, in effect, of a military coup. Is it fair, I ask Douglass, to think of his book as “Oliver Stone with Footnotes”? Not really, Douglass says. He is indebted to Stone for endorsing his work, but mainly for the film that prompted Congress to liberate a flood of evidence that Oliver Stone hadn’t seen when he made his movie.

Douglass seems to me over-correct or perhaps coy in protecting the confidence of the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s alter-ego and wordsmith. Six months before Sorensen died three years ago, he initiated contacts with Douglass, “spoke supportively” of his book, and shared views of the assassination story that he did not want to voice in public. “Why not?” I ask. Because, Douglass says, the speechwriter credited with the noblest lines of Kennedy’s “peace speech” at American University in 1963, wanted to focus on Kennedy’s legacy, as if his murder five months later were not the centerpiece of our awful inheritance. We are still confounded by the silences in this saga.

Strange to say, the most memorable witness to the mystery of JFK in Jim Douglass’s telling is the monk and venerated author Thomas Merton, observing Kennedy from afar a year before the president was killed. In the remoteness of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, two years older than the Catholic president, was watching Kennedy carefully and not without sympathy: “… he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd,” Merton wrote in 1962. But facing the “suicidal moral evil” of nuclear war, Merton measured Kennedy without great confidence either.

I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.

Thomas Merton in a letter to his friend W. H. Ferry, quoted by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 11.

Merton’s prophecy provides the framework of the Douglass narrative which I read and reread, and find inconclusive but compelling. Douglass is not casting John Kennedy for sainthood but he is telling the story as holy tragedy, in which JFK with enormous courage accepted a miracle knowing that the price might be his life.

Is there an under-50 reader or listener, I wonder, who feels with my generation that we’ve all been orphaned by our enforced ignorance around the crash of John Kennedy’s vision?

Podcast • June 4, 2013

JFK & his Papa: David Nasaw’s light on The Patriarch

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the ...

JFK & JPK 63

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s court account of A Thousand Days. The story was that late in the 1960 campaign, when the Jack and Bobby Kennedy were both extending themselves to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Georgia, King’s venerable namesake, “Daddy” King of Atlanta, a lifelong Republican, announced that he’d never thought he could vote for a Catholic… “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK said, in Schlesinger’s telling. The line JFK added “quizzically,” was “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

The gap was broader than that. Joe Kennedy had been an outspoken isolationist even as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain; he was a Neville Chamberlain appeasement guy while JFK was learning to love Churchill’s rhetoric of indomitability. Joe Kennedy, tainted by soft-core anti-Semitism, was “absolutely, totally opposed” to the war in which his 3 older sons raced to enlist.

So the differences are sharp and significant, but in the masterful researches and close readings of David Nasaw, the continuities are clear, too, and for a new century maybe more telling. Joe Kennedy’s was ready to “make a deal” with Hitler in 1939-40 on the realistic reading that England was not prepared to defend itself in battle. This became JFK’s college thesis and first book, Why England Slept, an echo of his father’s analysis.

The flip side of Joe Kennedy’s appeasement policy was his zeal to negotiate a rescue of European Jews and a peace that would have saved Europe from war’s devastation. Nasaw is emphatic in our conversation on the point that Joe Kennedy knew more, cared more and was ready to do more about the Jews’ predicament than either Roosevelt or Churchill. The instinct for negotiation shows up, of course, in JFK’s inaugural doctrine: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” And it’s confirmed in all the posthumous evidence of JFK’s mostly secret scurrying in his last year of life to make back-channel peace with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro — to end nuclear testing, to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, in truth to cancel the Cold War. Both father and son can be read (in part anyway) as rueful, near-radical peaceniks up against the merciless war habit.

Joe Kennedy could count the price of war in his own family. “I hate to think how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war,” he wrote his father in law in 1937. John Kennedy, in the American University Speech in June, 1963 which now sounds like the heart of the man and his most precious legacy, spoke with the same poignancy in plain language: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Podcast • July 19, 2012

Elizabeth Warren: Keynoter on the “money” issues

Elizabeth Warren's race for the Senate in Massachusetts looks like what Harold Macmillan had in mind with the famous quip — when asked what actually changes the direction of things: "Events, dear boy, events!"

Elizabeth Warren‘s race for the Senate in Massachusetts looks like what Harold Macmillan had in mind with the famous quip — when asked what actually changes the direction of things: “Events, dear boy, events!” If the lady law professor from Oklahoma and Harvard in her first run for office can re-take the lost “Kennedy” seat, it could mark a moment and place when the second Gilded Age was called to account by a one-issue candidate. If, on the other hand, the upset winner in 2010 of Ted Kennedy’s unfinished term, Republican Scott Brown, can win as a photographer’s model of suburban contentment, on likeability and slogans like “He’s for us,” the event will mark something else — unflappable composure, perhaps, or psychic numbing.

Elizabeth Warren has been the cutting edge of the Democratic Party on the “money issues” since Barack Obama took office, often resisting and goading him. She’s still hot as a pistol on YouTube — berating Timothy Geithner back in 2009 for pampering Goldman Sachs in the AIG bailout, explaining to Michael Moore why you can’t buy exploding toasters in the USA but exploding mortgages are okay. Her campaign is a lot cooler than that and can sound blandly repetitive on the theme of rebuilding the middle class. But the drift of her books, teaching and regulatory career is clear: public investment empowered American life, while abusive private power, specially since the 1970s, has bankrupted the American dream. She could hardly have imagined the drum-beat of summer scandals — the Barclay’s bust, LIBOR rate gaming, JPMorgan-Chase’s disappearing billions, the torrent of unattributed campaign money — that might be taken to reinforce her point.

We’re in conversation at the JFK Library overlooking Boston Harbor. Senator Brown declined the Library’s invitation to this session, but everybody’s left doors open to another. The notion was somewhere between campaign stop and an open seminar — maybe a park-bench conversation before 600 people on the state we’re in — and how the researcher of works like The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke sees it differently now on the main streets of Massachusetts. On the day we met she was celebrating the second birthday of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau which she designed for the Obama administration — and where many friends, including Ralph Nader, expected the President to put here in charge. Instead the White House encouraged her to try out her ideas (and some of theirs) on the hustings.