Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Book and Authors' Club Luncheon, Cleveland, Ohio, February 20, 1958

I am sincerely delighted to be here with you this afternoon. The distinction of this luncheon, of my host Louis Seltzer and his paper, of my fellow speaker Max Lerner – all of these cause me to wish I could extend my stay. But the Senate votes this afternoon on the Post office employees' much-needed and long-postponed pay raise – and I have a strong suspicion that if I am absent on that important vote, the postmen of Massachusetts may not "always ring twice." As a result, I am about to become the first tourist ever to go from Cleveland to Dayton by way of Washington, D.C.

My desire to remain in this city is not shared by all Bostonians. Legend has it that one resident of my city, having died and passed on to the next world, remarked upon arrival: "Why, the climate in heaven is just like Cleveland!" "Excuse me," said a doleful bystander, "but you are not in heaven."

It is a little unusual to speak at this luncheon as the result of a book published more than two years ago. One dealer in the audience, however, did come up and say: "Oh Senator Kennedy, I wish I had 50 of your books." I replied that I would be glad to speak to the publisher. "Perhaps you don't understand," she said. "I have 200 of them now." When someone else handed up a note addressed to "the greatest profile in courage of them all", I modestly insisted it was for Max Lerner. He graciously insisted it was meant for me. Finally we opened it together and read: "Dear Mr. Seltzer."

Louis Seltzer is a profile in courage – a profile, as well, in industry and effectiveness and initiatives. The people of Cleveland are fortunate indeed to have his articulate counsel and leadership – even on those rare occasions when you reject them.

I am glad to be here, too, with Max Lerner. For I have long admired him as a man of varied and extraordinary talents … a beloved professor at Brandeis University in my own state … an incisive columnist for the New York Post … the author of what is perhaps 1958's greatest book – and I am not referring only to its size.

There is much on which Max Lerner and I agree. There is much on which we disagree, partly because of the difference in our responsibilities. To paraphrase Lord Melbourne's statement about T.B. Macaulay, I wish I could be as sure of anything as Max Lerner and the New York Post seem to be about everything. Sometimes after reading the Post, I cannot truthfully stick to the statement that my wife is my severest critic.

But Max Lerner is essentially a writer interested in politics – I am a politician interested in writing. And on one point I know we agree – that our writers, scholars and intellectuals – our eggheads, if you please – ought to work more closely with instead of against our politicians and public officials.

This is true today more than ever before. Our national leadership may depend upon our nuclear power, our industrial power and our manpower – but even more urgently we need brainpower. The Soviets have seized the initiative in intellectual achievements – not because they captured German scientists, but because we neglected American scientists. Leaders in both parties are hard-pressed for the reflection and creative objectivity our scholars could bring to the solution of our most difficult problems . . . small farmers and small business in an age of bigness – the twin evils of inflation and recession … declining urban areas, hostile race relations, morality in government, in labor, and in business.

In short, we in the political world stand in real need today of help from the intellectual world. I do not say that our political and public life should be turned over to experts who ignore public opinion. I would not give Harvard or Brandeis – or Ohio State – a seat in the Congress as William and Mary was once represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Nor would I adopt from the Belgian Constitution of 1893 the provision giving three votes instead of one to college graduates (at least not until more Democrats go to college).

But I would urge that our political parties and leaders on the one hand, and our scholars and writers on the other, recognize the need for greater cooperation and understanding between politicians and intellectuals. It is not enough that the latter simply lend their talents to criticizing the government and deploring its programs. Most scholars, I know, would prefer to confine their attentions to the mysteries of pure scholarship or the delights of abstract discourse. But "would you have counted him a friend of Ancient Greece," as George William Curtis asked a century ago during the Kansas-Nebraska Controversy, "who quietly discussed the theory of patriotism on that Greek summer day through whose hopeless and immortal hours Leonidas and his three hundred stood at Thermopylae for liberty? Was John Milton to conjugate Greek verbs in his library, or talk of the liberty of the ancient Shunamites, when the liberty of Englishmen was imperiled?" No, the duty of the scholar – particularly in a republic such as ours – is to contribute his objective views and his sense of liberty to the affairs of his state and nation.

I am not calling for political scholars whose education has been so specialized as to exclude them from participation in current events – men like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria once remarked that he would be a better man if he knew a third subject – but he was interested in nothing but the Constitution of 1688 and himself. No, what we need are men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge and recognize the mutual dependence of our two worlds. We need the technical judgment and the disinterested viewpoint of the scholar, to prevent us from becoming imprisoned by our own slogans – to lower our temperature in the cooling waters of the scholastic pool.

Unfortunately, even in this year when the "egghead" has come into his own, the gap between the intellectual and the politician seems to be growing. Many writers and scholars find it difficult to accept the differences between the laboratory and the legislature. In the former, the goal is truth, pure and simple, without regard to changing currents of public opinion; in the latter, compromises and majorities and procedural customs and rights affect the ultimate decision as to what is right or just or good. And even when they realize the difference, most intellectuals consider their chief function to be that of the critic – and politicians are sensitive to critics (possibly because we have so many of them.) "Many intellectuals," Sidney Hook has said, "would rather 'die' than agree with the majority, even on the rare occasions when the majority is right." Of course, the intellectual's attitude is partly defensive. He has been regarded with so much suspicion lately that a 1956 survey of American intellectuals by a national magazine elicited from one of our foremost literary figures the guarded response, "I ain't no intellectual."

But this mutual suspicion was not always the case. Our nation's first great politicians were traditionally our ablest, most respected, most talented leaders, men who moved from one field to another with amazing versatility and vitality. A contemporary described Thomas Jefferson as 'A gentleman of 32, who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet and play the violin."

John Quincy Adams, after being summarily dismissed from the Senate for a notable display of independence, could become Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and then become a great Secretary of State. (Those were the happy days when Harvard professors had no difficulty getting Senate confirmation.) Daniel Webster could throw thunderbolts at Hayne on the Senate floor and then stroll a few steps down the corridor and dominate the Supreme Court as the foremost layer of his time.

This versatility also existed on the frontier. Missouri's first Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, the man whose tavern brawl with Jackson in Tennessee caused him to flee that state, was described with these words in his obituary: "With a readiness that was often surprising, he could quote from a Roman Law or a Greek philosopher, from Virgil's Georgics, The Arabian Nights, Herodotus or Sancho Panza, from the Sacred Carpets, the German reformers, or Adam Smith; from Fenelon or Hudibras, from the financial reports of Mecca or the doings of the Council of Trent, from the debates on the adoption of the Constitution or intrigues of the kitchen cabinet or from some forgotten speech of a deceased Member of Congress."

This link between American scholarship and the American politician remained for more than a century. A little more than one hundred years ago, in the Presidential campaign of 1856, the Republicans sent three brilliant orators around the campaign circuit: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (In those carefree days, it seems, the "eggheads" were all Republicans.)

A similar pattern was followed in other countries. Prince Bismarck once remarked that one-third of the scholars of German universities broke down from overwork; another third broke down from dissipation; and the other third ruled Germany. (Those of you who are scholars may decide for yourselves in which category you fall.)

But today, in our own country, this link is all but gone. Where are the scholar-statesmen of yesteryear? The American politician of today is fearful, if not scornful, of entering the literary world with the courage of a Beveridge. And the American author and scholar of today is reluctant, if not disdainful, of entering the political world with the enthusiasm of a Paul Douglas.

The modern politician – although not all of them, I should make clear – knows well that what he says but never writes can almost always be denied; but that what he writes and never remembers may someday come back to haunt him. The thought of Job's lament "O, that my enemy had written a book," has dried up many a politician's pen. Only political memoirs and diaries, published at the end of one's career, and with the incalculable advantage of hindsight, are considered to be relatively safe. The only fiction to which many modern politicians turn their hand is the party platform – the only muse which they invoke is their party leader.

At the same time, too many American authors and scholars – forgetting that their forefathers were politicians, too – are fearful that the rough and tumble of politics will damage the fine hand by which they spin out carefully conceived works. "All literary men," wrote John Galsworthy, "can tell people what they oughtn't to be; that's literature. But to tell them what they ought to do is politics." Many literary men will tell us what we ought to do – to that extent they will enter politics. But few will put themselves into the open arena, exposed to the pressures of public calumny and to the humiliation of the ballot-box. They prefer to remain on the marksman's end of the rifle of political criticism, and not on the bull's-eye.

Moreover, politicians and authors are mutually dependent upon each other. If there were no politicians or government, presumably there would be no copyright laws, to inhibit what Hannah More in 1786 called "those literary cooks, who skim the cream of others' books." There would be no postal service to vote on in the Senate today, which subsidizes the distribution of millions of newspapers, magazines, books and other publications to the tune of some 240 million dollars a year of the taxpayers' money. This is called Federal Aid to Education, I guess.

Politics, politicians and Government, moreover, offer indispensable subjects for literary plots. The conquests of a Charlemagne, the tragedy of a Lear, the imprisonment of De Bonnivard – these are essentially tales of politicians and their Governments. It took politics to hang the witches at Salem, to plunge the knife into Duncan at Dunsinane, to quarrel over the remains of Caesar at Rome, to send the Maid of Orleans to die in the city square at Rouen. Without politics and Governments, there would be no spies, no court intrigues, no revolutions, no prisons, no poorhouses. Certainly without politics, there would never have been a Civil War – and thus no Red Badge of Courage, and no Rhett Butlers or Scarlett O'Haras to pursue each other through the pages of about 90% of today's historical novels.

Politics and Government, finally have touched the lives and works of all the authors and poets we have ever honored. They ordered Lawrence to Arabia, sent Byron to die in the rain at Missolonghi, exiled Shelley to Italy, dismissed Poe from West Point and sent Rupert Brooke to die near Troy.

Nor is this a one-way street. The influence of literature upon the course of our political life has been equally vast and immeasurable. Time and again, great works of literature like Rousseau's "Social Contract" have given rise to great political struggles – and time and again, great political struggles have given birth to great works of literature.

Modern politicians, whatever they may say, could no more get along without authors than authors could get along without politicians. It is from books and articles – whether fiction (like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle), or non-fiction like Max Lerner's great work – that those of us in the political arena obtain our ideas, our ideals, our issues and our inspiration. We are indeed sisters under the skin.

Perhaps most important of all, the American politician and the American scholar are dependent upon each other to maintain their common framework – a framework we call liberty. Freedom of expression is not divisible into political expression and literary expression. The lock on the door of the Legislature, the Parliament or the Assembly Hall – by order of the King, the Commissar or the Fuhrer – has historically been followed or preceded by a lock on the door of the University, the newspaper, or the bookseller's. And if the first blow for freedom in any subjugated land is struck by a political leader, the second is struck by a book, a newspaper, or a pamphlet.

Unfortunately, in more recent times, politicians and some intellectuals have quarreled bitterly – too bitterly in some cases – over how each group has met the modern challenge to freedom both at home and abroad. Politicians have questioned the discernment with which intellectuals have reacted to the siren call of the extreme left; and intellectuals have tended to accuse politicians of not always being aware, especially here at home, of the toxic effects of freedom restrained.

While differences in judgment where freedom is endangered are perhaps inevitable, there should nevertheless be more basic agreement on fundamentals. In this field we should be natural allies, working more closely together for the common cause, against the common enemy.

"Poets," wrote Shelley at the conclusion of his "Defense of Poetry," "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." This is truer than most legislators are willing to admit. Your causes, Mr. Lerner – and those of your fellow scholars – your crusades – even your criticisms – stimulate us and help to guide us.

"Don't teach my boy poetry," an English mother recently wrote the Provost of Harrow. "Don't teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for parliament." Well, perhaps she was right – but if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live on this 20th day of February, 1958.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 899, "Book and Authors Club Luncheon, Cleveland, Ohio, 20 February 1958." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.