“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,”
John F. Kennedy’s Call To Service during 1960 Inauguration
The Gift Outright
by Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)
President Trump’s limited vocabulary and hate mongering is a stark contrast to the eloquence of former Presidents who strove through the power of their bully pulpit to inspire everyday Americans. In a little over a 1,000 days, John F. Kennedy, delivered some of the most powerful speeches of the 20th Century. Kennedy used his short time in office to create a vision of change that included everyone, not just in America, but around the world. His famous line; My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, is recognized by most of us, but the second part of that quote is less remembered. Kennedy doubled down and asked immediately afterward; My fellow citizens of the World, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man?
Yes, indeed, what together can we do for the freedom of human beings? A great question during a time when the United States government has authorized taking away children from their parents and putting them in concentration camps and our collective moral outrage has not yet, been enough to sway the course of our political destiny and right this leaky, floundering ship of our democracy.
A little known fact, is that shortly after Kennedy delivered those iconic lines, a first occurred in a Presidential inauguration. President Kennedy had asked a poet, Robert Frost, to deliver a poem that he had specifically written for the occasion called Dedication. It was a first time a poet was part of the inauguration program. But when Frost stepped to the podium, the sun was so blinding that the 86-year-old couldn’t read his own hand writing. So instead, he delivered his sonnet, The Gift Outright, from memory.
Great speakers understand that their words are only part of the way we communicate. In fact communication experts say that words make up about 10% of the way humans communicate with each other. The remaining 90%, is conferred through tone, inflection, body language, emotion and authenticity (reputation). So what is a poet to do, when words are all they have to work with on the page? Choose them wisely, is the answer; And on this noon-day’s beginning hour, begin a golden age of poetry and power!
By Robert Frost
(The undelivered poem at Kennedy’s Inaguration).
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgment I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded His approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood–
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison–
So much they knew as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what now appears
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did we say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.