“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” — John F. Kennedy, Oct. 26, 1963
It almost seems surrealistic, now, given the current political climate. But we once had a president capable of given thoughtful, philosophical speeches, in which he talked not about himself or his party’s agenda, but strove to inspire people to do what they could to make the country a better place.
Fifty-five years ago this month — on Oct. 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave his last major speech, at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. An hour-long documentary about it, “JFK: The Last Speech,” will be shown at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick, Oct. 5.
The reason why the speech is a good topic for a documentary has to do with the speech’s content, not its timing. Kennedy was in Amherst to honor the poet Robert Frost, on the occasion of the groundbreaking for the college’s Robert Frost Library. Frost, who had taught at Amherst, had read his poetry at Kennedy’s inauguration, in January 1961, and had died in January 1963, at the age of 88. And Kennedy spoke, at Amherst, about Frost, and art in general, and the vital role that art plays in a democratic society.
“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much,” he said.
He also said: “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.”
You can read the entire speech, if you want, HERE.
Getting back to the documentary … director Bestor Cram uses old film footage and photos, as well as new interviews with those who were there, to show not only what happened on that day, but why it was important. Cram also explores the deep relationship between Kennedy and Frost (and the rift between them that followed Frost’s 1962 trip to the Soviet Union), and tells the story of how Frost’s poetry and Kennedy’s message affected Amherst students of the era. Four Amherst alumni in particular are given a lot of time to talk about their own lives.
In a way, the documentary’s title is a little misleading. It’s not about the speech, so much, as the way that speech has reverberated, since then. Which is more important, anyway.
“JFK: The Last Speech” will be shown at Voorhees Hall #105 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m., after the short films “Let Mercy Come” and “Patiri.” The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the film’s producer-director, Bestor Cram. Visit njfilmfest.com.