|At the interment of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery, 25 November 1963|
Those of us of a certain age, say, those of us over the age of 55 or so, know exactly where we were when we heard the awful news that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, had been assassinated, fifty years ago today, in Dallas, Texas. I was a six year old second grader that fateful Friday, and was playing in our family's living room on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of Philadelphia. At the time, I was of course too young to grasp the horribleness of death or the significance of the event for my country, but I vividly recall it for one reason: it remains one of the only times—indeed, perhaps the only time—I ever witnessed my mom crying uncontrollably. To this day, the details of the next few days—the shooting of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the somber-yet-impressive state funeral—remain images indelibly impressed on my memory.
What I want to focus on today is something different, a matter hardly ever discussed in our increasingly Philistine culture. I am speaking about the arts, specifically the necessary role the arts play in a functioning, civilized society. Less than a month before he was killed, Kennedy gave a brief speech at Amherst College in honor of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost, who had died on 29 January that year (to listen to the speech, go the NEA website here). The transcript of the speech is as follows:
I too share President Kennedy's view of the necessary role of the arts in a civilized society. Indeed, the banal, stultifying oppressiveness of the individualistic and exclusively economic worldview of the present Zeitgeist have, in my view, robbed this country of much of what, at one time, made it great. Would that another leader arise to awaken this sleeping giant from its soul-destroying artistic slumber.