By Ed Bradley
The reflective new documentary JFK: The Last Speech recalls a time when not only could it be assumed that the American president knew how to spell the word “poetry,” but also that he could recite verse at an important event without an eyebrow being raised or a pundit shouting. Still, John F. Kennedy’s last major public address, less than a month before his assassination, was no typical oration.
Speaking at Amherst College in his native Massachusetts on Oct. 26, 1963 – with his final trip to Dallas four weeks ahead — Kennedy delivered a powerful message to the liberal arts-schooled students about the dynamics of poetry and power. His thesis – that the young were obligated, through the arts and their activism, to question societal institutions, government and politics included – struck a chord among those who were there, so strongly for some that it has profoundly influenced their lives.
Some of those post-Amherst stories are interestingly told in JFK: The Final Speech, which recently premiered on public television stations. One of those testimonials about how JFK’s message impacted them has a local link: Ted Nelson, a 1964 graduate of Amherst who was on hand for the speech, is a Flint resident and retired business owner. (His wife, Jan Worth-Nelson, is a retired University of Michigan-Flint writing teacher who is the editor of East Village Magazine.)
In 1963, Amherst was an elitist, all-male institution where many of the best and brightest came to study the humanities to rigorously sharpen their thinking skills for the pragmatism of the outside world. Kennedy, himself a product of liberal arts education as a Harvard graduate, came to Amherst for the groundbreaking for a library named for Amherst faculty member Robert Frost, the New England-bred poet who had become what one interviewee in the show calls an “adjunct to the New Frontier.”
Nelson and his classmates – three others of whom are also spotlighted in JFK: The Last Speech– took to heart the president’s words about the need for educated men and women to take the traveled path referred to in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” and put humanity’s welfare first.
As Nelson tells it, he met Kennedy briefly after the Amherst address and was asked what he planned to do with his life, which for Nelson was an intended training position for an insurance company. “No,” Kennedy responded, “you’re going to join the Peace Corps.”
That’s exactly what Nelson did, serving for three years in Turkey, where he helped improve the lives of children who were living in conditions with contaminated water. It was a precursor of sorts to Nelson’s future in a city with a lead-tainted water supply.
“I was carrying Kennedy’s torch,” Nelson says from Flint of his service in Turkey, where he found images of JFK adorning many walls of modest dwellings.
In their city, the Nelsons, in Ted’s view in the program, are “gadflies” who, for East Village Magazine, ask questions and seek the truth within the established order.
Elsewhere in the hour-long documentary, we see Nelson’s classmates make a difference in the legal defense field in New York, help in arts enrichment for disadvantaged populations in Montana, and work in journalism to cover conflict in El Salvador, but this program is as much about reminding us of the complicated interaction between Kennedy and Frost as anything else.
Frost, a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, shared an idealism and Harvard background with the young president at whose inaugural he had read his poem “The Gift Outright.” Frost remained close to Kennedy through most of his term, until a communication snafu during a visit by poet-as-diplomat Frost to the USSR impaired their relationship shortly before Frost’s death in January 1963. However, Frost remained an inspiration to JFK’s beliefs in national service and the significance of the arts, and the president paid back a debt to his departed friend in his address at Amherst.
“Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan age,” Frost wrote to Kennedy on a bound edition of the poet’s inaugural-day manuscript, referring to the fruitful neoclassical period of history. Kennedy imparted the same ideas to the students in 1963.
JFK: The Last Speech grew out of an idea conceived at the 50th-anniversary reunion of Amherst’s Class of 1964. A nonprofit organization, Reunion ’64, was formed, and hired a Boston-based production company, Northern Light Productions. (More information on the show, which is making the rounds of PBS outlets nationally, and a same-titled book connected to its release, can be found at jfkthelastspeech.org. Directed and produced by Bestor Cram, JFK: The Last Speech stands, intentionally or not, as a rueful reminder that many colleges and universities have forsaken concentration on liberal arts, and the abstract thinking skills they foster, in favor of the tunnel vision of job preparation. In the age of John Kennedy and Robert Frost, we could see the latter’s face on the cover of Time Magazine and not ask “Who?” or “Why?”
In a hopelessly fractured 21st century United States, too few seem to have heeded Kennedy’s advice from that 20th century day in October that “power corrupts” but poetry, his shorthand for the arts and artistic thinking, “cleanses.”
Kennedy’s words, Nelson says in JFK: The Last Speech, “changed my life in a way that I never would have suspected … and (have) never regretted it.”
Ed Bradley, a former longtime Flint Journal editor and writer, is the associate curator of film at the Flint Institute of Arts.