A poet and a politician swapped roles during the presidential campaign of 1960, when Robert Frost campaigned for John F. Kennedy and Kennedy tinkered with Frost’s poetry.
Politicians as well as poets understand the power of the spoken word, and Kennedy and Frost were among the best — if not the best — of their era.
Kennedy joked he couldn’t invite Frost to his inauguration because he’d steal the show. But the 43-year-old president-elect had nothing to fear. His inaugural words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” became a mantra for legions of Baby Boomers.
The Poetry of Robert Frost
Kennedy wanted Frost to read a poem, The Gift Outright, at his inauguration. The poem tells the history of the United States in 16 lines of blank verse. But Kennedy wanted the poet to change the last line, from “such as she would become,” to “such as she will become.”
They say when the president asks you to do something, you can’t refuse. But for a man of letters, a request to change one’s words is nearly unthinkable.
Robert Frost Campaigns
Frost had campaigned for Kennedy ever since his 85th birthday on March 26, 1959. He held a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City that day, just before the celebration. A reporter asked him about the decay of New England. Frost replied,
The next President of the United States will be from Boston. Does that sound as if New England is decaying?
Kennedy wouldn’t announce he was running for president for another 10 months, and Frost was asked who he meant. “He’s a Puritan named Kennedy,” Frost said. “The only Puritans left these days are the Roman Catholics. There. I guess I wear my politics on my sleeve.”
Kennedy later sent Frost a warm note, and Frost continued to praise Kennedy as he traveled around the country reading and lecturing. The candidate reciprocated by concluding his campaign speeches with his fellow New Englander’s well-known lines, ‘But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.’
Kennedy, of course, proved Frost right about the winner of the 1960 presidential election. While planning the inauguration, their mutual friend, Rep. Stewart Udall, suggested Frost read a poem. Kennedy was probably only half-joking when he said, “Oh no! You know Frost always steals any show he is part of.”
Stealing the Show
Robert Frost agreed to read the poem, and he even wrote a new one for the occasion, called Dedication. The day of the inauguration, Jan. 20, 1961, was bitterly cold and sunny. Just before Kennedy spoke, Frost was called forward. He fumbled with his manuscript. Finally he began to read the new poem, but lost the words in the bright January sunlight. “I’m having trouble with this,” he said. Vice President Lyndon Johnson tried to shield the page with his top hat, but Frost brushed him away. Then the old poet launched into The Gift Outright from memory. The crowd loved it.
He dragged out the last line, with the comment, “Such as she would become, such as she has become, and I – and for this occasion let me change that to – what she will become.”
Frost then thanked ‘President-elect John Finley.’ No one cared. He hadn’t quite upstaged the young president, but he came close.
With thanks to Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini. This story was updated in 2022.