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by William H. Benson

January 21, 2010

     John F. Kennedy and Robert Frost met on the steps of the Capitol on January 20, 1961 at the inauguration of the 35th President of the United States. Kennedy’s associate, Stewart Udall, had first suggested that Jack should invite the nation’s most distinguished poet, Robert Frost, to speak at the inauguration, but Kennedy, at first, had hesitated. “Oh no. You know that Robert Frost always steals any show he is part of.”

     During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy had ended his speeches by quoting Robert Frost’s memorable lines: “But I have promises to keep; And miles to go before I sleep; And miles to go before I sleep.”

     Both Kennedy and Frost were from Massachusetts: Kennedy from Hyannis Port on the coast, and Frost from Amherst, in the center of the state, where he was poet-in-residence at Amherst College, and that was about all they had in common, for in 1961, Frost was 86 years old, and Kennedy half that at 43. Where Frost was a distinguished poet, the grand old man of American belles letters, Kennedy was the wealthy scion of Joseph Kennedy, Catholic, Irish, a Navy man, and an exceedingly ambitious politician.

     And yet there was something within Kennedy that drew him to Frost. Someone said it was Kennedy’s “insatiable curiosity, his support of the arts in America, and his optimism.” Another said that his decision to include Frost at the inauguration “focused attention on Kennedy as a man of culture, as a man interested in culture.”

     Alice Roosevelt Longworth said: “The Kennedy’s were a fascinating incredible outfit. I had great fun with them, especially Jack. He loved to tease, and he could be very amusing. He also had a real feeling for learning. Both he and Bobby were eager to supplement their education by learning more. They really wanted to know.”

     The day dawned bright and sunny on the heels of a snowstorm just days before, and then after the swearing in, Kennedy spoke.

     “Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. . . . The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. . . . And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country!”

     After the applause, Frost approached the podium, but because of the glare from the blinding sun, he discovered he could not read the 77 lines of the poem “Dedication,” that he had written for the occasion. After a few awkward moments, he instead recited the fourteen lines of “The Gift Outright,” a poem he had memorized.

     Frost’s private advice to the new president: “Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan age. Don’t be afraid of power.” Then in a thank you note back to Frost, Kennedy wrote, “It’s poetry and power all the way!”

     During the last two years of Frost’s life, he continued to circle within the President’s orbit, but then on January 29, 1963, at the age of 88, the poet passed away. Of Frost, Kennedy said, “He has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding.”

     On Saturday, October 26, 1963, Amherst College conducted a ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library and invited the president to give the key address, and in it Kennedy explored the distinctions and resemblances of power and poetry.

     “And it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths that serve as the touchstones of our judgment.

     “But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. I look forward to a great future for America—a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America, which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.”

     Lofty words, but well worth pondering today, and they were virtually President Kennedy’s last intellectual thought, for four weeks later on Friday, November 22, 1963, while riding in a Dallas motorcade, an assassin’s bullet ended his life.