U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III speaking at Amherst College Oct. 29, 2017

"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 the diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths, which must serve as the touch stone for our judgment."

In what would end up being his last major speech before his assassination the following month, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke at Amherst, marking the groundbreaking of the College’s Robert Frost Library on Oct. 26, 1963.

On Oct. 28, 2017, Amherst College held a symposium marking the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s birth and the occasion of the historic Amherst speech, in which Kennedy spoke of the relationship between politics and poetry. At Saturday’s symposium, students, faculty and alumni not only commemorated Kennedy’s speech but also subjected it to rigorous analysis, placing it in the context of its time and discussing its relevance today.

Joseph Kennedy delivering key note address on Oct. 29, 2017

In a keynote address delivered in the same spot where JFK spoke 54 years ago, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (JFK’s grand-nephew) noted that the former president’s message of hope and service still resonates.

“There's no secret that we are here in turbulent times,” the congressman said, criticizing a political climate “that threatens the work of generations of American diplomats and a vision that targets the values that America has long defended.” He insisted, “That is not who we are. This dark world view has left many disoriented, searching for what binds us together in times that threaten to tear us apart.”

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III speaking at Amherst College Oct. 29, 2017

“It is in moments like these, that the role for the Liberal Arts is critical,” he continued. “For we trust our artists to expose the burdens that many of us bury within. We depend on them to remind us of our individual frailties, that they are not unique, but rather built upon can fortify common cause.”

Video: Keynote Speech by Joseph P. Kennedy

October 30, 2017

Keynote speech by Kennedy at the “Poetry and Politics: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of President John F. Kennedy” symposium, given on the steps of Amherst’s Frost Library—not far from the spot where his great-uncle, the president, gave a short speech almost 54 years to the day.

We are “flawed and fragile,” he said, and sometimes “selfish and cruel,” but in the moments that matter, “we expand, we rescue, we protect, we survive. We give, we open, we heal and we help. That more than any law or leader, more than even the most powerful movements or moments in our history, that is what drives us towards progress, that is in fact the touchstone of our judgment.”

In introducing Rep. Kennedy, Amherst President Biddy Martin recalled the late president as an inspiration during her childhood. She noted that his eloquence, wit and commitment to equality offered her hope.

“Truth as the touchstone of judgment and art as the source of truth—how I wish these were the principles that guided more leaders today,” Martin said. “We all have a responsibility to make sure that it becomes true again, because in the absence of the poetic … politics kills. Poetry is not luxury. It is not an ornament.”

Symposium panel

Before the keynote address, alumni, students and faculty reflected on President Kennedy's address. “I can't tell you how other people reacted that day, but I can tell you how it affected me: It changed my life,” said Ted Nelson ’64, sharing memories of that “beautiful fall day” that JFK came to speak.

Nelson was among a small group of students with whom President Kennedy paused to chat after the speech. He remembers the president asking about post-graduation plans, and then, after listening to their responses, telling them, “No, you're not. You're going to join the Peace Corps."

“Of course, we laughed in his face and we moved on,” Nelson recalled. “Three weeks later, JFK was assassinated. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I would answer Kennedy's call.” Nelson signed up for the Peace Corps, spending two years working in a Turkish village. He would later take a staff job with the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. and spend years as an activist.

Following his keynote address, Rep. Kennedy similarly lingered to speak with Amherst College students, members of the Amherst Political Union and members of a student panel also offering their perspective of the 1963 speech.

Amherst College Students at the JFK Symposium

Student panelists talked about the exhortation to the students of 1963 to lead lives of public service.

Amherst College Students at the JFK Symposium

“When I first listened to President Kennedy's speech, I wanted to cry,” said Noor Qasim ’18. “It brought me such deep pleasure to hear words used so well.”

“Despite the darkness of his time, we remember President Kennedy as a distinguished leader, because he created a sense of hope,” said Dakota Foster ’18. “How do we do the same today? First, we must recognize that it is through unrest, conflict and discourse that opportunities for advancement and hope are born. Now we must push towards the progress that can follow turbulent times.”

Joseph Kennedy meets with Amherst student.

Gabrielle Francois ’19 noted the lasting value of President Kennedy’s address, because it “insists that all graduates of schools like Amherst must recognize their responsibility to the public interest, in return for the opportunities given to us.”

In the faculty panel, Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of Black Studies and English, said she was struck by three aspects of President Kennedy’s speech: “Its timeless appeal, its critical self-reflexibility and its absence of adornment.

She noted that in his edits, JFK struck out the phrase, "When power intoxicates, poetry restores sobriety,” and replaced it with the now oft-quoted words: “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

“There's much that he must have understood about power's corrupting influence, yet there also must have been much that he hoped his power, construed in its purest form as service, would achieve,” Cobham-Sander said. “In reaching for this poetic turn of phrase, JFK reaches for the possibility of his own redemption and he challenges us, his similarly empowered audience, to reach with him through service towards that possibility.”

Rep. Kennedy echoed JFK’s words, calling for a similar kind of redemption today.

“Poetry and politics may appear to live in distance, but excellence in either demands many of the same qualities,” Rep. Kennedy concluded in his keynote. “An embrace of human imperfection, a deep faith in the bonds of shared experience, an eye for opportunity that others might pass by and a belief that this life, this earth, this fleeting time that we share together is worth fighting as hard as we can to get it right.”

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III speaking at Amherst College Oct. 29, 2017