51 years after the event, circumstances had conspired so, I found myself in the political capital of the Global Empire, walking beside an infantry of weeping willows, and—across Rock Creek Parkway and a sliver of greensward—the meandering Potomac. Between the columns of willows, a fountain of youth—or hope—or tears; all monumentally framed in white by the insistently “modern,” straight-edged, perpendicular Kennedy Center, with his words inscribed thereon as on stone tablets:
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.” And, on the same “window” to that era: “I am certain that, after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”
And, on another “window,” a few paces away: “There is a connection, hard to explain logically, but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the Arts. The Age of Pericles was also the Age of Phidias. The Age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the Age of Leonardo da Vinci. The Age of Elizabeth also the Age of Shakespeare. And the New Frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a New Frontier for American Art.”
These words (and others to come later here) were gleaned from speeches delivered on various occasions and in different venues during his meteoric life and death. His words move me as much as anything Lincoln wrote in the Gettysburg Address, and I wish they were as highly recommended to our high-school students. Lincoln’s speech commemorated—“consecrated,” however inadequately—the losses in the endless human struggle for “liberty”—and how that liberty is “conceived.” In the eclat of his “New Frontier,” Kennedy looked beyond “the dust of centuries” to ponder America’s “contribution to the human spirit.” What other American president or elected (sanctioned!) political leader has conjoined the past titans of public life, Pericles, the Medici’s, Elizabeth, with those who strode beside them to sculpt, paint and script the Age? Kennedy did not live long enough to fill the assigned role of Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps he ascribed to himself a greater role: that of Teacher-in-Chief.
Early in the history of what witty Ben Franklin called “a Republic… if you can keep it!”—a couple of decades after the signing of that iconic (though slave-sweat-stained) “Declaration,” former presidents Jefferson and John Adams were already dreaming ahead, as their correspondence shows, of the coming glories of the new American “empire.” Nowhere in any Kennedy speech do I see that manic, imperial word! Rather, he points us to our higher selves—much as his contemporary, a man he helped support and elevate in the public sphere, Martin Luther King. While King believed we could reach “the Promised Land” by rigorous adherence to our best principles, our ethical foundations in Scripture, Kennedy emphasized the discipline and cultivation of the Arts.
What have we not lost since then?
Let me not mislead. Jack Kennedy was a Cold Warrior. He clouted Nixon in the debates not only with his charisma and Nixon’s sweaty chin, but with his constant harping on the dangers of the fairly apocryphal US “missile gap” with the USSR. He harped as well on China’s shelling of Quemoy-Matsu—islands claimed by Taiwan—while the US tightened the noose around China with SEATO. He won the election because the US was tired of eight years of Eisenhower’s grandfatherly paternalism. We sought energy, smarts, humor, myth and pizzazz. We wanted Camelot!
I think he learned in office. After the Bay of Pigs’ fiasco, he said he wanted to shred the CIA—which, he felt, had grievously misled him—into a million pieces. He quarreled with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During a strike against US Steel, he made an off-the-cuff remark—which I read in the New York Times!—that his father had told him businessmen could be sons of bitches! (He may have been born into privilege and power, but he risked his life for his working-class shipmates on PT-109.) He intervened in—and salved, if not solved—Civil Rights-integration crises in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. He increased the number of US “advisors”—troops—in Vietnam, but shortly before his death, he announced to America’s most respected news-anchorman, Walter Cronkite, that he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Six months before his assassination, Kennedy, who had committed his Administration to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, wrote Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion about his upcoming visit to Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona: "We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel…” He was not a man to pull his punches! Could he have ended the Cold War two decades before Gorbachev (mostly) and Reagan? God only knows!
He inspired as no political leader has since then. He was elegant in thought and demeanor. He made it acceptable, even “cool,” to be educated, learned, literate and erudite. He had a honed sense of irony, and could be funny.
But, we do know this: he inspired as no political leader has since then. He was elegant in thought and demeanor. He made it acceptable, even “cool,” to be educated, learned, literate and erudite. He had a honed sense of irony, and could be funny.
What have we not lost since then? We have had the silly rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and his “shining city upon a hill.” (But, how to get there?) Can one imagine George Bush senior or junior talking about the Arts, about “grace and beauty” or America’s “contribution to the human spirit”? One hears sniggering Hillary Clinton commenting on the barbaric, US-sponsored assassination of Libya’s Khadafy: “We came, we saw… he died,” she fatuously paraphrases Caesar! During his campaign for president, we hear Fool John McCain, updating a Beach Boys’ song: “Bomb, bomb, bomb…, bomb, bomb Iran!”—giddily dehumanizing the millions likely to be killed, physically and mentally blown apart. On either side of our duopolistic political spectrum, we hear preening talk of the “exceptional,” the “indispensable” people. When our first African-American president runs for office, we hear a football chant, taken up by a mesmerized, gulled gymnasium: “Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!”
Except… we really can’t….
We haven’t done the disciplined, steady work to shape the mind and lift the spirit—the work that Kennedy and King urged upon us: the difficult but joyous work that perceives the ethical life and a true life in the Arts as central to our survival, health, maturity and humanity. Politics and the Arts are interwoven in the tapestry that makes us human—and better than human, humane.
I was 17 when Kennedy was murdered. Barely four weeks before my and my generation’s comfortable fictions about America were forever shattered, he had delivered a speech at Amherst College, honoring the poet Robert Frost:
“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much,” Kennedy averred. He spoke of Frost’s “unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society,” and his “sense of the human tragedy” that “fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.” Kennedy praised Frost because he had “coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself.” He noted, “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… For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
For half a century now, our artists, as well as our “public servants,” have, mostly, wandered in a wilderness of arrogance and poor judgment. Fearful of losing their academic sinecures or foundation grants, our artists have, too often, eschewed a vigorous critique of America’s imperious, foundational economic principles—the Corporate State and its self-serving Republicratic 1-party system!
Building on Eisenhower’s parting shot about the “military-industrial complex,” Kennedy seems to have looked into our dark future, and foreseen our militarized police and all-encompassing Surveillance State: “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,” he warned. “In pursuing his perceptions of reality, [the artist] must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role.”
An unpopular role… but a vital one. 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. 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… having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”
And he concluded, “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.”
In 2014, let us consider: How well have we understood, and safeguarded, that eternal flame? Can we look forward with hope; shall we look back with pride?