The President And The Poet
A documentary about President Kennedy and Robert Frost and the importance of their messages in contemporary America.
“There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty. 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 upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”
- John F. Kennedy, Amherst College October 26, 1963
Less than a month before his assassination, John F. Kennedy delivered what is considered to be his last major speech to a large audience. Educators, politicians, journalists and students gathered at the Amherst campus on the occasion of the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library.
Among those present was the Amherst College class of 1964: future scientists, lawyers, teachers and economists, one of whom would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 2001. Kennedy challenged this class to “put back into our society, …into the service of the Great Republic, …those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion” that Amherst had nurtured in them.
The men in the Amherst Class of ‘64 held the promise of their generation. They inherited a world that was changing radically before their very eyes. Fifty years later, as they convened for their college reunion, a handful of classmates decided to focus their reunion on a theme: "The world we inherited, and the world we will bequeath."
Believing they still have the minds and the passion to affect real change, a group initiates a personal inquiry into that which has stalled our country. The hope is that what results from those discussions might offer a legacy worthy of the man who charged them with the responsibility of the future of the “Great Republic.”
Citation for The President:
John Fitzgerald Kennedy -- A citation for the President of the United States reads more like a prayer to the heavens, for all hopes for the sanity of national and international understanding depend upon you. But while pledging our support, we can applaud your skill, admire your courage, and be grateful for your leadership. By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of Amherst College, I confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws.
Calvin Plimpton, President Amherst College.
Archibald MacLeish Honoring Robert Frost at the Convocation:
Everything about him -- the seeming simplicity of his poems, the silver beauty of his head, his age, his Yankee tongue, his love of talk, his ease upon a lecture platform -- everything combined to put him within each reach. No one in my time upon this planet was so pursued by fame as Frost ....
It was his eightieth birthday. Frost had been in New York where every possible honor, including some not possible, had been paid him, and, returning here to Amherst and his friends, he fell to talking of what honor really was, or would be: to leave behind him, as he put it, "a few poems it would be hard to get rid of."
It sounds like a modest wish but Frost knew, as his friends knew, that it wasn't. Poems are not monuments -- shapes of stone to stand and stand. Poems are speaking voices. And a poem that is 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 the 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.
-Archibald MacLeish, Convocation Address at Amherst, October 26, 1963
In this era of political tension, when civic culture is fractured, when the value of the liberal arts is questioned, a message from 1963 has particular resonance today.
Twenty-seven days before he was assassinated, President Kennedy came to Amherst College to honor the poet Robert Frost. He spoke of the relationship between poetry and power and of a view shared with Frost that power must be exercised, but wisely -- tempered by a moral restraint inspired by the arts and a liberal education. And, he spoke of the obligation of those “given a running start in life” to serve the public interest.
The President and The Poet, a new documentary coinciding with the 2017 centenary of JFK’s birth, communicates the impact of this message through the stories of Amherst alumni and students and reflections by prominent scholars and political observers. Produced by an award winning filmmaker, this film will ignite public discourse on enduring values and on our shared responsibility for the public interest. It is a call to action to rebuild our civic sphere -- infused with broad sympathy, understanding, and compassion.
- Reunion '64
Honoring Robert Frost
On the Kennedy-Frost Relationship
Kennedy invited Frost to participate in the inauguration ceremonies and the poet answered via telegraph:
IF YOU CAN BEAR AT YOUR AGE THE HONOR OF BEING MADE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, I OUGHT TO BE ABLE AT MY AGE TO BEAR THE HONOR OF TAKING SOME PART IN YOUR INAUGURATION. I MAY NOT BE EQUAL TO IT BUT I CAN ACCEPT IT FOR MY CAUSE—THE ARTS, POETRY, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME TAKEN INTO THE AFFAIRS OF STATESMEN.
Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite “The Gift Outright," a poem Frost called “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse.
Frost composed “Dedication” (later retitled “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration”), to be read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested.
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
But Frost was unable to read the new poem as the wind and the bright snow made reading the poem impossible. Instead he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.
The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
Later, Frost called on the new President and First Lady at the White House to receive Kennedy’s thanks for participating in the event. He presented Kennedy with a manuscript copy of the “Dedication” poem, on which he wrote: “Amended copy. And now let us mend our ways.” He also gave the President the advice: “Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don’t be afraid of power.”
The President And The Poet
Robert Frost, John F. Kennedy and their shared legacy as inherited by the Class of Amherst '64.
Northern Light Productions
Bestor Cram, Founder and Producer/Director of The President And The Poet
Bestor Cram founded Northern Light Productions (NLP) in 1982 and is creative director of the firm. See http://nlprod.com
NLP is one of the premier documentary production companies in New England. The firm strives to achieve insights about social, political and cultural endeavors and their consequences. Mr. Cram has written, directed, produced, shot and/or executive produced more than 30 feature length non-films including Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Beyond the Wall, Weapons of Mass Disruption, and This is Where We Take Our Stand. Among NLP’s works are two 15-minute films produced for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero, “Facing Crisis: America Under Attack” and “Facing Crisis: A Changed World.
The first act of the film will open where the story of our graduates began—with the speech that represented the atmosphere of change and civic action that affected the class of ’64. Summing up the values of the 1950's they brought to Amherst classmates the act will examine Kennedy’s speech. The act will articulate a conflict of those values with the current culture and a longing to leave a more positive legacy.
On the campus that day were three young men: Richard 'Rip' Sparks, Charles 'Smokey' Stover and Peter Rubenstein. In this act we meet each of them and hear their recollections of who they were and where they thought they were headed in life, as well as their impressions of the Kennedy speech and how it, and his death three weeks later inspired them.
Sparks, now an accomplished environmental scientist credited with some very effective work cleaning up the Mississippi, will cap the act on an emotional note: "I was walking back from class across the campus and someone had put a radio up in the window of their dorm room in the quad. I heard this announcement that he'd been shot and then we all started gathering around radios or TVs and we heard then that he had died. But for me, the most critical thing was the coming together of the whole college that evening when President Plimpton, just talked to us for about 15 or 20 minutes. What he said at the end really influenced me. He said, "Let us stand a moment in silence to honor him, and then let us go do the things he couldn't complete." And that's when I decided to join the Peace Corps."
Amherst College 2014 -- Fifty years have passed and the Class of '64 gathers for a reunion themed "The world we inherited, and the world we leave behind." Reunion organizers issue a challenge to the class to examine the political, education and environmental challenges left to later generations to solve. In his keynote speech at the reunion, Amherst '64 classmate economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, makes a compelling case for examination of the divide in our culture, particularly the economic divide.
Working off the issues raised in his speech, the act will focus on how Rip, Smokey and Peter have been motivated to seek change. Rip's work in the Peace Corps in Nigeria led him through paleontology to environmental science. Peter thought he would go to medical school and devote himself to research, but became a rabbi -- one who is considered among the top rabbinical leaders in the country. Smokey also joined the Peace Corps, and returned to work in the public sector and eventually uprooted his young family to work on healthcare issues in the Philippines.
In Act two we will explore these three characters lives today and their focus on the future. Rip is still teaching and working in Illinois; Peter retired from Central Synagogue and took a position at NYC's 92nd Street Y, where he will lead discussions among disparate leaders and iconoclasts he would never have been able to connect in his work at his synagogue; Smokey has also retired, and found himself wrestling with the concentration of wealth that, as he sees it, "controls the political process." Frustrated, Smokey notes "It looks like they're not only making business policy, but making social policies. It just seems to me the wrong people are making the wrong decisions. My daughter has been very clear that her generation has inherited a mess. We fought against our parents in the 60's. It would seem to me that the best hope we have would be to work with our children and grandchildren toward a solution."
Enter Pierre Joseph, Amherst College Class of 2015. A Truman Scholar who grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, Pierre is a force on campus at Amherst and in his full-time job working in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's state office. Pierre's curiosity is piqued by the class of '64. While he doesn't share their goals, he's interested in finding common ground, and a common goal. "One of the issues is developing a common working definition for democracy," Pierre says. "For the older group, they associate democracy exclusively with the act of voting. Under this definition, solutions become extremely limited (requires very little from the citizenry).The shift needs to be towards creating conditions for a participatory system, understanding that democracy is more than elections but a civic way of life - creating decision making institutions / supports that give regular people a say in the process (look at community action programs from the 60s or participatory budgeting today.")
This is the act that is beginning to take shape. These are the voices we will explore in this film. Each of our four main characters have given and continue to make sacrifices to accomplish change in their field and contributions to, as Pierre says "a civic way of life." How will they accomplish this? How can Kennedy's legacy continue to motivate change?
"I look forward to a great future for America," Kennedy told his audience at Amherst College in October, 1963. "A future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future." Kennedy lived only three weeks beyond that speech. The question is, can they continue to motivate the change required to accomplish a call to action?
(Photos are from 2014 50th Reunion)
This is our story.
We were college seniors ...
when President Kennedy visited our campus that November day. Fifty years later, we have undertaken this film project because Kennedy’s message to us is more important now than when he spoke it. Our fiftieth reunion sparked a process of reflection on how we have done, as a class and as a generation, in responding to the challenge to guard the public interest and to champion liberal education and the arts. With the help of a professional filmmaker, it is time for us to tell our story. We not only carried the torch that Kennedy passed to us, but we also seek to pass it intact to a new generation of leaders who will be responsible for the future of our society and our country. We cherish the values extolled by Kennedy and Frost and hope that they will live on well beyond our time.
2017 marks the 100th anniversary
of President John F. Kennedy’s birth.
Just 26 days before his death, in what is now viewed as his most significant speech, President Kennedy spoke at Amherst College in dedication of the Frost Library. He challenged students to a life of public service, extolled the importance of the arts and reflected on the work of Robert Frost and the relationship between poetry and power. Kennedy spoke of privilege, of inherited wealth and inherited poverty. “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 upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”
Format and Schedule
of The President And The Poet
This 60-minute film is being broadcast by select public television stations (check your local listings) distributed by American Public Television beginning in June 2018. It will also be screened at film festivals, potentially at premier libraries, and at college and non-profit venues seeking to promote civic engagement.
is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation ...
formed in 2014 by members of the Amherst Class of ’64 at the time of their 50th reunion for the express purpose of producing a documentary concerning President Kennedy’s visit to the Amherst campus, the message he conveyed in his convocation address, the timeless importance of that message and the impact that it has had on students who heard it. The premise motivating the film is that Kennedy’s message is more important today than when he spoke it on campus.
Board of Directors and Management
of Reunion '64
Robert R. Benedetti (Director and President)
Mr. Benedetti is a retired professor and retired head of the University of the Pacific’s Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership. He is currently affiliated with the Center for California Studies, California State University, Sacramento. He voluntarily expends such hours as are required to assist in the formation, organization, and operation of the corporation.
Neil C. Bicknell (Director and Vice-President)
Mr. Bicknell is a chartered financial analyst, who after several years on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs, founded his own company. He has been active in mergers and acquisitions, representing at various times both the sell side and the buy side. He voluntarily expends such hours as are required to assist in the formation, organization, and operation of the corporation, and in its fund raising activities. His experience includes previous involvement in the production of two different educational films one of which was produced for, and broadcast on, public television.
Charles C. Stover (Director and Secretary)
Mr. Stover is a member of Innovative Development Expertise & Advisory Services, Inc. (IDEAS), a small business dedicated to strengthening health systems that target underserved populations throughout the world. He voluntarily expends such hours as are required to assist in the formation, organization, and operation of the corporation.
Stephen E. Smith (Director and Treasurer)
Mr. Smith is a retired attorney at law, formerly active primarily as general counsel for various medical device and technology companies. He voluntarily expends such hours as are required to assist in the formation, organization and operation of the corporation. His experience includes the financing and legal representation of one IMAX/OMNIMAX film for distribution to science museums around the country.
Dr. Roger M. Mills (Director)
Dr. Mills is a retired medical doctor. He was Professor of Medicine at the University of Florida, and later worked for Johnson & Johnson (Janssen Pharmaceuticals) both in medical affairs and in research and development. He voluntarily expends such hours as are required to assist in the formation, organization and operation of the corporation.
These five individuals are alumni of Amherst College, class of 1964. They are donating their time to this endeavor on an entirely volunteer basis with the intent that they not in anyway be unjustly or otherwise enriched by this activity.
Passing the Torch
Stories of Service to The Great Republic
Video is currently not available....
Passing the Torch includes brief interviews of Peter Rubinstein, Tom Jacobs and Steve Downs. Each considers the influence of the liberal arts on his life, sometimes expressed in an appreciation of Robert Frost. And each reflects on the influence of the President as he urged service to "the Great Republic."
Passing the Torch was created as an early exploration of the concept for The President And The Poet prior to the development of a full treatment for the documentary.
President Kennedy spoke of 'passing the torch' in his Inaugural Address:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. -- Listen to JFK's Inaugural Address
Slide each photo to see more ...
Acquainted With The Night - Poem by Robert Frost
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain - and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Into My Own from A Boy's Will
Robert Frost, 1915
Note: in Frost A Literary Life Reconsidered, (1984) William H. Pritchard challenges Frost's assertion that Into My Own is "somehow about going away from 'college.'" That notion is "a pleasant fiction which only the poet and not the poem itself could suggest to us. Yet Frost's effort to give a shape to the whole collection [A Boy's Will] and provide a sort of beginning, a development through various moods, then a turning into new resolution, is of a piece with his attempt to provide such temporal shapes within individual poems."
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Our Winning Class!
Robert Frost's Vermont
Frost wrote much of his verse in a log cabin in Ripton in central Vermont... his poems are more than rooted in the state's landscape, they are the landscape: its stony and frugal soil, its sculptured, shimmering green glens bespeaking a timeless and mystical perfection, and its early winter melancholies. Frost's words, like sharpened farm implements, sifted meaning from this both severe and tender physical reality.
From "Robert Frost's Vermont" by Robert D. Kaplan and published September 1, 1991 in The New York Times.
At the Robert Frost Cabin
Our Own Words
Spoken during Reunion '64
James T. Giles
Attorney, Federal Judge
You'll never know whose life you're going to touch by mentorship, by counseling, by being a teacher. No matter what you do with your Amherst education, you're first and foremost the teacher. You might call yourself something else but you're a teacher. If you're a lawyer, you're a teacher. If you're a doctor, you're also a teacher....
President Kennedy spoke about the dangers [to the democracy] of any society that tolerates or promotes inequality. Inequality in access to education, health care or participation in government. All those things will threaten the democracy. I happen to have that paragraph circled on a piece of paper in my pocket.
College football coach, Attorney, High School Principal, Environmental Activist
We were so fortunate. We came along when the United States was the dominant power... the country was extraordinarily prosperous. The division between the haves and have-nots didn't appear to exist then. We're leaving behind a lot of challenges ... The environment is one. Political gridlock is another. The education system is a mess. The divisions between the haves and the have-nots is terrible. The domination of wealth in our political system.
Having spent the last three or four years in activism on fossil fuel issues, I have become convinced that the way that the political gridlock is going to break is through grassroots efforts that eventually percolate up and force politicians to do what's appropriate.
Leadership Qualities? Passion. Energy. Conviction. Some courage. Willingness to stand up when you get pushed down. The really good leaders are also good at reading others and responding to them in a dispassionate way, that is to say, in a nonjudgmental way. They accept people more as they are and work with them to either help them understand or to find a way to persuade them.
Retired Airline Pilot
I love this place. It was the best of times and the worst of times. It’s like most things that are painful but rewarding. The difficulties go away and the sweet moments stay. Those moments are the people you meet. You reconnect with them and it’s priceless.
Today, sitting in the environmental seminar and discussing our environmental legacy, I looked down and here’s guys, the average age is probably 72 and they’re involved. They’re not just involved. They’re leading the way. I think that’s part of this school’s heritage and I’m proud of that.
National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council
I didn’t hear JFK's speech. I was one of about 20 or so students who were picketing his visit because of what he was not doing on Civil Rights. I’d been interested in that issue for quite some time. I’d gone down to Washington for some of the earlier marches in the late ‘50s...
I finished my dissertation and was interested in environmental issues but saw no connection between that and my brand new dissertation on social psychology ... Eventually I figured out, it sort of dawned on me reading Garrett Hardin’s paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that these environmental problems really were problems of human behavior in a way, and problems of coordination of human activity, and that I could actually simulate environmental degradation in the laboratory with a small group of people using things that amounted to resources. ..
When we started thinking about the environmental legacy, it became clear to us that the biggest issue for our generation is climate change. That climate change requires, if we’re going to keep it in reasonable check, a whole lot of human change on lots of different levels.
National Institute of Health, Cancer Institute
There were three experiences at Amherst that I certainly remember with some clarity. The first was President Plimpton on the David Susskind show saying Amherst was trying to educate the students to be able to go into fields that don't yet exist. The second was from Professor Ziegler who said, “We have classes… you could just go out to the hills and meditate or think,” he said, “but we think you will do a better job when you go out there if you have something to think about.”
The third was also from Professor Ziegler. What he excelled at doing was no matter which view we took he would take the opposite view and give you reasons for completely disagreeing with whatever it was you were saying. Then he would summarize and say the position that you have largely ends up depending on what your value system is, and that we take our value systems for granted, but it's just as important to analyze our value systems so that we understand first our positions and also the positions of other people who may not agree with them.
University of Illinois, Illinois Natural History Survey, Aquatic Ecologist
I heard JFK speak and it had a profound impact on me because he talked about privilege, how we were privileged attending this college, and that much was expected of us because of that. He also talked about the artists in society.
But for me, the most critical thing was the coming together of the whole college that evening after JFK was assassinated.
The Amherst president at that time, President Plimpton, talked to us for about 15 or 20 minutes. He told us little anecdotes about the day Kennedy was here. Just little things that made it personal like the fact they all took their jackets off, but the talk was about big, important things ... what he said at the end really influenced me. He said, "Let us stand a moment in silence to honor him, and then let us go do the things he couldn't complete." And that's when I decided to join the Peace Corps.
Charles (Smokey) Stover
Consultant on Medical Issues
I’d been involved … since President Kennedy’s inauguration I was very much taken and motivated by his speech. That was a message right from the beginning of freshman year. I was interested in various projects that related to Africa, and during freshman year helped organize a book drive for Liberia. After graduation, I went into the Peace Corps, I was two years there, initially managing a peanut export cooperative ...
I thought maybe we should look at the reunion from the perspective of the world we inherited and the world we're leaving behind. We had inherited a pretty solid economy and reasonably stable foreign relations, (although there was the Cuban Missile Crisis). I put the idea in the alumni journal. One of my daughters had suggested that theme when we were arguing over the mess we were leaving her generation.
Economics Professor, Columbia University
One of the things that was so striking about what Kennedy said at Amherst is how it resonates with the problems that our country is facing today. He talked about inequality, in a period when inequality was much lower than it is today.
One aspect of the optimism of that era was how we saw things as full of potential. There was optimism: that torch was being passed to a new generation. There were things like the Peace Corps. We were going to change the world. But the people graduating today don't have that same sense of optimism. I hope that we make the right decisions. I think we could make the corrections. Robert Frost is one of our heroes here at Amherst and one of his most famous poems is “Two Paths Diverged in the Woods.” I always think about that poem and about the fact that there are choices. I hope we choose the path that will lead us to greater equality, greater job opportunity for our young people, that we are able to harness our enormous strengths to serve not just those at the top but to serve our entire country and to create the kind of vibrant democracy, real democracy that is so deep in our system of values.
Rabbi, New York City
Whatever your intellectual commitments, nothing will happen until you yourselves are aligned with some passion that arises from what you feel is your mission, the purpose for which you were placed in this creation.
We left this place, we in the class of 1964, with expectations and assumptions, a type of life plan. For education, for career, for family, in fact for our well-being. For some of us, well-being was entwined with the well-being of society and selfless acts and decisions that took us forcibly forward to correct society, bring justice for humanity, advocate and sacrifice for the disenfranchised.
But quite honestly, others of us even when we embodied those altruistic inclinations within, move forward with a much more distinct concern for our own well-being and success. In gross terms, we were on the make, not in social sense though that might have been part of it but more so driven by ambition. We sought glory in our own disciplines and to be known so that when we showed up at these reunions we would have tales of accomplishment to tell and answer to what was often the very first question we ask each other, "so what are you doing?"
We would ask now something more: what are the touchstones we presently use to give direction to our lives? How are they different from the anchors upon which we depended when we left this campus? Where did our life veer?What were the unexpected unpredictable, unplanned, unexplainable, irrational, uncertain and often uncontrollable moments that emanated from passion rather than from logic?
The thing that was really attractive was the core curriculum. First two years, everybody studied almost the same thing. You had your choice of language, but everyone studied physics, calculus, ancient civilizations, an English course for two credits in which you had to turn in three papers every week and then be excoriated in the middle of class. And it was tough, but it also provided common ground for people to discuss things other than who wants to join what fraternity, people would be in line in lunchroom and would be discussing Greek philosophers or the latest physics problem ... It was a unique experience that I have not had since then.
Securities Lawyer, Publisher, Entrepreneur
There are a number of guys in our class who embody that kind of spirit. Kennedy was always saying 'you have to do it yourself -- you can't rely on others.'
There are many of us who are self-motivated doers and we came from a generation that thought we could do anything to improve things and should do a lot because we really feel and care about our legacy.
What's been beautiful about this weekend is the lead-up to it. So many of us have not just been re-acquainting ourselves but acquainting ourselves with guys we didn't know as much about then as we do now because guys are baring their souls on the Listserv providing information that we never knew about. It makes this occasion so much more meaningful.
I have read Frost's poems over a lifetime and was at his open readings and his memorial at Amherst as well as an attendee at the Kennedy speech there. I also attended Kennedy’s inauguration and witnessed the Frost presentation on the steps of the Capitol during a very cold, but clear morning.
Frost thought civic engagement was not for everyone, but those who have the gift to lead should grasp it just as those who are poets should pursue their calling. Frost seems to be arguing for leaders who strike balances between extremes. He champions the natural leader even if he wants at times to refuse his responsibilities.
Frost was drawn to Amherst in part because the students were able and were blessed with an individual spirit. He, like Kennedy, wanted those with such talents to succeed in the arts and in statecraft. He saw such hardheaded visionaries as the only hope for the future. They needed a broad education and “real life” experience to arm them appropriately and to allow competition to bring the best to the top. This was his life experience and Frost would have others follow his lead.
Retired Investment Banker
We've concluded that democracy, as a form of government, is a fragile gift. The sacred core of that gift is the single vote of each citizen. The value of the single vote of the citizens of the United States is being undermined. The process leads inevitably, in some of our views, from democracy to oligarchy over an extended period of time when an individual vote counts less and a smaller and smaller group determine who we, the people, are.
Counselor, Retired Head Master
At our age, how will each of us channel our vitality, skills, life experience, and compassion to continue contributing to society? And how did and does our particular educational experience at Amherst influence this decision to give back? JFK's speech in the fall of '63 was a rallying cry.
Our professors encouraged and, in many cases, demanded keen insights from study and action and from a compelling need to deepen understanding, to shape our own opinions first, and then use these convictions to shape opinions and provoke commitment in a larger circle. As undergraduates, we were focused on preparing for successful careers. However, I'm quite sure this reunion is confirming that commitment. In the intervening years we have learned what Winston Churchill once said: "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."
Philanthropist, Retired Investment Banker
What I tend to do is help to architect and build or shape and fund a variety of not-for-profit organizations. Why do I do this work? It's like JFK said when he's here. It's my responsibility to do it, but I also do it because I believe that education is the engine of social mobility, and I think social mobility is good for our economy and our democracy, so I think it's a smart thing to do and the right thing to do.
My work is not entirely altruistic. As my wife Penny Sebring was told when she joined the Peace Corps that if you're here for totally altruistic reasons and there's no self-interest involved, you will not last. It has to be a combination of the two. Her self-interest was to travel and learn Spanish, which she continues to use today.
The other reason I do this stuff is I'm trying to remain relevant, which I find is a big task. I simply don't want to become a cute little man in the corner. I'm trying to stay in the game.
SAO Conference April 17-18, 2015
Engaging with Current Amherst Students:
The Amherst Family of Students, Faculty and Alumni joined together to consider actions to improve our Democracy.
Working Program Agenda
SAO Conference – Restore Our Democracy
April 17 – 18, 2015
By the end of the conference, participants will have taken steps toward agreement on -
Friday, April 17
3:30 PM Registration opens
4:30 Welcome & discussion of conference program, SAO mission and plans, and conference
5:00–7:00 Jeffersonian Dinner Format: Table discussions of a) what is your definition of democracy,
and b) do we have a democracy? - Issues with our politics and economics that concern
you and your vision for a brighter future.
7:30 Address by Hedrick Smith open to the Amherst and Five College Community. Topic:
The Interrelationship of Our Political and Economic Problems and How Did We Get
9:15 Social hour
10:15 Adjourn for the evening
Saturday, April 18
8:30 AM Breakfast at Valentine.
9:15 Conference convenes – Plan for the Day.
9:30 Film clips addressing structural changes that can fix our politics and make our economic
system fairer, including non-partisan redistricting processes, increased voter
participation, public campaign financing, repeal of sore loser laws, open or more
competitive primary processes, re-work of Congressional rules to reduce "party line"
9:45 Panel discussion: Priorities for structural changes that would improve our political and
economic systems: Hedrick Smith, Professor Jonathan Obert, Neil Bicknell ’64 and Abe
Kanter ’15; moderator TBD, followed by Q&A and group discussion.
10:25 Ten-minute break
10:35 Breakout Sessions on Structural Changes (moderators TBD):
- Do you agree with procedural changes discussed?
- Are there other changes important but not discussed?
- How should the proposed changes be prioritized?
11:05 Breakout Sessions on Policy Issue Advocacy (moderators TBD)
- Will advocating for an increased gas tax help build political consensus?
- What is the potential for an e-voting system to increase turnout?
- Shall we support passage of the Voting Rights Act as a change priority?
- Other policy issues as the group may decide.
11:35 Plenary discussion of priorities for change – reports from breakout groups.
12:00 Lunch at Valentine
12:45 Presentation by Steven Olikara, Founder and President of the Millennial Action Project,
on The Role of Millennials in Achieving Political Change.
1:15 Panel discussion followed by Q&A: How to Engage Beyond Elections – Lessons from
the 60’s and the What Millennials Can Do: Steven Olikara, Pierre Joseph ‘15, Mitch
Meisner ’64 and Smokey Stover ‘64, moderator Kim Hetsko ‘64.
2:00 Concurrent Breakout Sessions: Moving the SAO Forward, including action programs to
promote changes discussed in the morning sessions:
1. Generating op-eds for newspapers and social media distribution;
2. Developing and promoting questions to ask 2016 candidates for office;
3. Extending SAO’s reach to students and alumni on other campuses;
4. Developing an education initiative to promote civic engagement
5. Creating a program to open democracy issue dialogues between U.S. students and
students at foreign universities. (Other initiatives as the group may decide.)
3:10 Ten-minute break.
3:20 Plenary session: Report back from breakout groups on moving the SAO forward, next
steps for the SAO and evaluation and discussion of lessons learned and suggested
improvements for future SAO programs.
4:00 Closing Comments, Speaker TBD
4:20 Conference adjourns followed by a social hour.
The Jeffersonian Dinner
Thomas Jefferson would invite men and women steeped in politics, literature, the arts, the sciences, theology, history, mores, and manners—to spend a stimulating evening around his dinner table. This was a prime source of education both for Mr. Jefferson and for the guests, all of whom were engaged citizens, eager to share and debate ideas that would shape the nation.
The President's Convocation Address
October 26, 1963 at Amherst College
MR. McCLOY, President Plimpton, Mr. MacLeish, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
I am very honored to be here with you on this occasion which means so much to this College and also means so much to art and the progress of the United States.
This College is part of the United States. It belongs to it. So did Mr. Frost, in a large sense, and, therefore, I was privileged to accept the invitation somewhat rendered to me in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt rendered his invitation to Mr. MacLeish, the invitation which I received from Mr. McCloy.
The powers of the Presidency are often described. Its limitations should occasionally be remembered, and, therefore, when the Chairman of our Disarmament Advisory Committee -- 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 or invites the President of the United States, there is only one response. So I am glad to be here.
Amherst has had many soldiers of the King since its first one, and some of them are here today: Mr. McCloy, who has been a long public servant; Jim [James A.] Reed, who is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury; President [Charles W.] Cole, who is now our Ambassador to Chile; Mr. [James T.] Ramey, who is a Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission; Dick [Richard W.] Reuter, who is head of the Food for Peace. These and scores of others down through the years have recognized the obligations of the advantages which the graduation from a college such as this places upon them: to serve not only their private interest but the public interest as well.
Many years ago, Woodrow Wilson said, "What good is a political party unless it's serving a great national purpose?" And what good is a private college or university unless it's serving a great national purpose? The library being constructed today - this College itself, all of this, of course, was not done merely to give this school's graduates an advantage, an economic advantage, in the life struggle. It does do that. But in return for that, in return for the great opportunity which society gives the graduates of this and related schools, it seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools' graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest.
Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility. And I think, as your President said, that it must be a source of satisfaction to you that this school's graduates have recognized it. And I hope that the students who are here now will also recognize it in the future.
Although Amherst has been in the forefront of extending aid to needy and talented students, private colleges, taken as a whole, draw 50 per cent of their students from the wealthiest 10 percent of our nation. And even state universities and other public institutions derive 25 percent of their students from this group. In March 1962, persons of 18 years or older who had not completed high school made up 46 percent of the total labor force, and such persons comprised 64 percent of those who were unemployed. And in 1958, the lowest fifth of the families in the United States had 4 1/2 percent of the total personal income, the highest fifth 45 1/2 percent.
There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty. 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're willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.
The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman, to find 10 million jobs in the next 21/2 years, to govern our relations -- a country which lived in isolation for 150 years, and is now suddenly the leader of the Free World -- to govern our relations with over 100 countries, to govern those relations with success so that the balance of power remains strong on the side of freedom, to make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom. All this requires the best of all of us.
And therefore, I am proud to come to this College whose graduates have recognized this obligation and to say to those who are now here that the need is endless, and I'm confident that you will respond.
Robert Frost said it:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I hope that road will not be the less traveled by, and I hope your commitment to the great public interest in the years to come will be worthy of your long inheritance since your beginning.
This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians as well as by others, and even by poets, for Robert Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.
In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this College and country honors a man whose contribution was 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. In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.
Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our 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. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. "I have been," he wrote, "one acquainted with the night." And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it's 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 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 truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist's fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets: "There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style." In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society-in it-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. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.
I look forward to a great future for America - a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction. Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:
Take human nature altogether since time began,
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one per cent at the very least,
Our hold on the planet wouldn't have so increased.
Because of Mr. Frost's life and work, because of the life and work of this College, our hold on this planet has increased.
Speech given by President John F. Kennedy at Amherst College in Massachusetts in honor of the poet Robert Frost at the ground breaking of the Robert Frost Memorial Library.