Monday, January 29, 2018

JFK and Robert Frost

Robert Frost, who died fifty-five years ago today, was one of America’s preeminent poets.  In writing my book Dinner in Camelot (ForeEdge, April 3), I highlighted one brief aspect of his long life:  his relationship with John F. Kennedy.
Their relationship began the night of Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1959.  At a news conference that evening, Frost implied an endorsement for the Massachusetts senator’s anticipated presidential candidacy.  Two weeks later, Kennedy sent a letter to Frost, in which he extended birthday greetings, joined him in extolling the virtues of New England, and gushed over the four-time Pulitzer-Prize winning poet.

Kennedy asked Frost to deliver a poem at the 1961 inauguration, and his recitation of “The Gift Outright” quickly expanded his national recognition. After the inauguration, Frost counseled Kennedy, who was forty-three years younger:  “Be more Irish than Harvard.  Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age.  Don’t be afraid of power.”

The following year, on April 29, 1962, he was invited to the Nobel dinner at the White House—which is the subject of Dinner in Camelot—and was seated at the president’s table.  He also joined a select few at the after-party in the second-floor family residence. 

A few months later Kennedy sent Frost to the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program.  Frost, who had a triumphal tour of the communist country, also met with Nikita Khrushchev.  But on his arrival back home, the tired old poet made a misstep at an impromptu news conference, saying, “Khrushchev said that we were too liberal to fight.”

President Kennedy, a cautious politician, avoided Frost, no report was received, and they never met again. The poet died in January 1963.  In October, Kennedy helped dedicate the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.  In paying tribute to Frost and American artists, Kennedy gave his last speech in Massachusetts.

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