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
As the wind blew through the tree-lined paths of the Amherst campus, colorful leaves fell delicately, reminding one of the gentle mood fall brings on before the challenges of winter. A view of Johnson Chapel’s spire piercing the sky with its strength of architectural character chaffs with one’s spirit, like the disconcerting beauty that Peter, Paul and Mary evoke singing Blowing in the Wind. The air is filled with autumn’s seasonal warnings -- preparations for reconsidering the events of the past as one wrestles with choices to be made and promises to be kept.
It is 1963 and the deceased Robert Frost, well known for his participation in the presidential inauguration, was now to be remembered at an Amherst College convocation as well as the library groundbreaking dedication ceremony in which President Kennedy would honor the preeminent poet.
“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.”
The two had become good friends, respecting one another’s willingness to pursue questions where answers are elusive, to search with a language that seeks to overcome humanity’s ease with ambiguity. In 1962, prior to the Cuban missile crisis, the president dispatched the poet as an emissary to Moscow. In a somewhat unexpected yet calculated, lengthy and mutual admiration engagement, the poet met with the premier. The discussion was punctuated with shared respect for the importance of poetry and a lively expression by Russia to understand the desirable attributes of a “noble rivalry.” Upon returning to the US, Frost shared with the press his time with Khrushchev, expressing incorrectly the premiers belief about Kennedy’s unwillingness to fight. It resulted in a barrage of attacks on the president. A cold war encounter became the reason for the president to turn a cold shoulder to Frost. JFK’s fury was punishing to both of them and a regretful president offered a eulogy of reconciliation that fall day in Amherst.
“He gives the lie, as a good many other poets have, to the fact that
poets are rather sensitive creatures who live in the dark of the garret….
He was not particularly belligerent in his relations, his human relations,
but he felt very strongly that the United States should be a country of
power and force, and use that power and force wisely.”
This collusion of power and art illustrates two stories that are the heart of this new documentary made about the class of ’64 at Amherst. The first story is this little known collision between Kennedy and Frost and how it led to the President addressing the students at Amherst College where he celebrated the power of poetry and the arts. During his address he challenged the soon to be graduates to take on the responsibility of making change in the world, taking the privilege of education as an opportunity to bridge the gap between socio-economic groups that have divided America and contribute to creating obstacles for many to reach their American Dream. The story enables a new focus on the President’s visit to Amherst, emphasizing the balancing act the president had enacted in his diplomatic solution to the Cuban Missile crisis and his reflection of Frost’s belief:
"Great nations admire each other and don't take
pleasure in belittling each other."
The second story that emerges with this historical narrative is in the contemporary voice of various Amherst graduates who in their own words express how they responded to the President’s challenge, how they took responsibility in their choices about the lives they would create, how they embraced the arts as part of making a more empathetic and equitable world that would be passed on to the next generation.
Rip Sparks tells a story about the pressure he resisted when he was told to stop criticizing a policy that his own research contradicted.
“What does it mean to know that something is ‘knitted into your
very being’”? I knew that I loved every aspect of the work I was doing
and that it was important for both scientific and policy reasons. I knew
I might have to hunker down for a time, but I was not going to shut up.”
Steve Downs who retired as the Chief Attorney for the New York State Commission of Judicial conduct provides insights gained from his work with the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“My life is now spent in a rather strange world of accused or
convicted “terrorists”. I have become close to many and respect
their courage in facing persecution.”
Tom Jacobs recalls his experience in the military as a prelude to his discussion about our current patient care system.
“Like almost all physicians of our vintage, I was drafted into the Army
for a two year stint (including a year in the Highlands of Vietnam
mostly caring for the Montagnard people), and then did an endocrine
fellowship at the University of Washington.”
The examination of the ideals of civic engagement are further explored with the next generation of Amherst students and graduates who share on camera their appreciation of what Kennedy and Frost charged college students with and their own assessment of change that occurred and what the work in progress before them looks like today.
Kennedy asked, “What good is a private college or university unless it serves a great national purpose?” The film will, in an understated but powerful manner, project the great national purpose that liberal arts colleges as illustrated by Amherst, serve. In this time of acute political tension, the film will help ignite discourse on our shared responsibility to serve the public interest, to illuminate the goals of our democratic republic and to the rebuilding of a vibrant civic sphere. At times this is a dialogue, in other instances it may be a presented as a point/counterpoint style with contemporary imagery illustrating specific moments and themes expressed.
The style of this documentary is achieved through weaving a story that connects directly to Amherst on a personal level, how it helped shape a foundation of character that was then expressed with purpose in life. The qualities of individual commitment are related as they are told in parallel with the JFK/Frost story elevating a significance as the portraits become a measurement of change and lost opportunities, of institutional struggles and unfinished business in making the promise of democracy resemble the values and priorities of this generation.
Archival footage including JFK’s address in October 1963, illustrative still and motion picture imagery that captures the imagined idealism and emerging chaos of the 60’s helps to reflect the mood and expressions of that era. Contemporary imagery brings to life various issues in which the classmates of Amherst ’64 describe the success and failures of a generation that wanted what JFK called for, but realize today that the goals have yet to be achieved. The storytelling approach utilizes brief narration to assist in bridging themes and eras.
It is the contemporary interviews that create the tension and narrative structure for this not-traditional non-fiction film. Not only is the ‘past as present’ continuum explored by interconnecting the JFK/Frost narrative with contemporary themes (justice, power, art, diplomacy, equity, government, leadership), it is a view of a generation as part of a life course journey. We as an audience examine the expectations of youth, the fulfillment of having made a journey and the manner in which principles are at the heart of informing and determining the decisions that shaped the way in which the voyage was conducted.
The documentary goes deeper into Kennedy's message concerning the importance of the arts (and by extension a liberal arts education) in that they "establish the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment." To assist the exploration of these themes will be potential interviews with:
Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education.
E.J. Dionne, author of Our Divided Political Heart, who writes about our country's long standing tension between individualism and community.
Paul Woodruff – author of First Democracy and Reverence, both of which address the cultural imperatives for a successful democracy on terms that amplify the Kennedy – Frost messages.
The documentary is visually fascinating making connections to the youthful yearning of the 60’s and the realistic assessment of those now matured by 5 decades of choices and outcomes determined by an embrace of a president’s challenge. It is a sobering yet eloquent assessment of the commitments and achievements of talented thoughtful graduates who made a difference and yet see that the need for reform and new ideas is greater than ever.
As Frost said,
"The only trouble with dying is not knowing how it will all turn out."
And as President Kennedy said,
“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations…When power corrupts poetry cleanses.”
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.