Thoughts for an Inauguration
By M. Frances Erler
Every four years, we swear a president into office. About half the time, it’s a new one, not the one who served the previous term. People tend to talk about how our system of democracy works, as each transition passes.
I’m not going to comment on this year’s transition, though. My thoughts are being drawn to an inauguration that took place 60 years ago. Can it really be that long?
Recently, I came across an old paperback of Robert Frost’s poems and noticed in the back of the book, the poem Frost wrote for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in January 1961.
I was eight years old, and in third grade then. I remember that our teacher brought a black-and-white TV to school, so we could watch it. Technology was not a classroom fixture back then. In my mind’s eye I can see the gray-headed Frost reading his poem in the snow and cold wind. Then the wind blew his papers out of his hand. But he continued from memory.
Too young to have understood any of the poem back then, I was fascinated to read it with my adult eyes this past week. In one place he says:
“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.”
Years later I read Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and now I understand what Frost was saying—that we as citizens and politicians in a democracy need to remember we are still answerable to a higher power, a moral compass, if you will. Our personal needs are not the measure of all things. There is a greater good. Frost concludes his poem with these words:
“Firm in our 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.”
Yes, many had high hopes for the presidency of JFK, a new era, maybe even a “golden age” as Frost intoned. But Robert Frost died in the winter of 1963, and JFK was assassinated the following November. Now I think I envy Frost because he didn’t have to live to see the dream die.
In one of those ironies of life, an eleven-year-old paperboy from Gary, Indiana was at that 1961 inauguration. He and several others had won the trip by selling subscriptions to the Gary Post-Tribune. That boy would become my husband a mere fourteen years later.