I am not certain that all of my fellow politicians would share my enthusiasm for these literary gatherings. The literary profession, after all, has not always been very kind to the politician. George Bernard Shaw regarded all political situations as "smirched with compromise, rotted with opportunism, mildewed by expedience, stretched out of shape with wirepulling and putrefied with permeation." Hilaire Belloc wrote "Epitaph on the Politician Himself" which declared:
"Here, richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintances sneered and slanged,
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged."
Successful politicians, according to Walter Lippmann, are "insecure and intimidated men," who "advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, and seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate" the views and votes of the people who elect them. It was considered a great joke years ago when the humorist Artemus Ward declared: "I am not a politician, and my other habits are good also." This was the time when Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley described our political leaders as "fine, strong American citizens – with their hand on the pulse of the people and their free forearm against the windpipe."
Despite this steady stream of abuse, the best politicians the world over have always turned to the best of the world’s literature. Prime Minister Gladstone of Great Britain had a devouring passion for books which has probably been unmatched by any American statesman. Gladstone called his library "The Temple of Peace." There he found rest and serenity after the noisy quarrels of British politics. American statesmen, from time to time, may retire from public office temporarily in order to rebuild their health, their wealth or their political fences. But Gladstone retired from politics for a period at the age of 65 for a somewhat different reason – to prove by elaborate research that the beautiful and benevolent Iris of Homer traced her descent directly from the rainbow described in the ninth book of Genesis. This heroic act of scholarship finds no parallel among American statesmen.
But let us not forget how much the world of literature has always meant to the Statesmen of America. Thomas Jefferson was largely responsible for the rebuilding of the Library of Congress after British troops burned the Capital during the War of 1812 – not because he rallied the American people to its support – but because, having fallen into hard times without a pension for ex-Presidents, he was willing to sell the Congress some 65 hundred books for just under $24,000. Some members of Congress objected – they were skeptical of Jefferson, they were skeptical of his views and they were skeptical of his books. But Congress finally gave its sanction to the sale – a decision which was important to the remaining years of Jefferson and even more important to all the years of this nation.
In the Jefferson Room today in the Library of Congress, where that same personal collection remains, you can study the reading habits of an 18th century scholar-statesman. You can see which books he bought, which he read most often, which passages he underlined and which pages he marked, and you will note that he met with distinction the most exacting test that can be imposed on any book-lover; out of the great mass of fugitive books, he was able to snatch the few that were ratified by the unerring judgment of posterity. The same books which helped to give him an enduring place in science, history, literature, and political thought.
The Library of Congress also contains the personal collection of Woodrow Wilson. It is an interesting contrast. As you might suspect, the English essayists and orators find a proud place on his shelves. But there is a rather meager collection of books on history and political science for a man who enjoyed a professional reputation in both studies. Wilson, while still a young man, wrote that more of a nation’s politics can be learned out of its poetry than out of all its systematic writers on public affairs and constitutions. It is a harsh saying, but Wilson remained unshaken in this faith to his last hour.
Yet one can take away from Wilson’s books also a lesson of vast importance. He read and re-read the books he loved until they passed into him, giving an added grace to his mind and the discipline of noble ideas to his thought. The number of books you go through never matters. The only thing which counts for any reader is the number of books which go through you.
Of course, in that sense the greatest of all readers was Lincoln. He knew how to domicile books in his mind until they flooded his whole personality with their light and mystery, their passion and their glory. One story of Lincoln’s habits as a bookman deserves to be better known. A reporter in Chicago wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860 to magnify his virtues for the Presidency. Among other things, he said Lincoln in his youth had been a devoted reader of Plutarch’s Lives. Later, it crossed the reporter’s mind that Lincoln might be unfamiliar with Plutarch. So, with a venturesome boldness beyond the scope of present-day reporters, he wrote to Lincoln advising him to study Plutarch without delay so that every statement in the campaign document could be correct. What was the result? A copy of Plutarch’s Lives was borrowed from the Library of Congress and charged to Lincoln’s account. It remained in the White House from April 7 until July 29, 1862. Is it not a grateful feeling, even now, to know that Lincoln, in the strain and tumult of those embattled months of the Civil War, had the consolidation and inspiration of Plutarch’s great book?
Lincoln’s reading habits, of course, were acquired young. In his boyhood days near Gentryville, Indiana, he spent countless hours supplementing his limited formal education voraciously reading all the books he could beg or borrow – books like "Pilgrim’s Progress", Robinson Crusoe, Weems' Life of Washington, Franklin’s Autobiography and Aesop’s Fables – not a bad great books course for the 19th century. There were no free public libraries in or around Gentryville at that time – and future statesmen such as young Abe Lincoln were hard put to study the teachings of the past and the issues of their day.
And because this is National Library Week, it is important that we point out another disturbing fact – that there are still today no public libraries in or around Gentryville, Indiana, or a large share of the other small towns and rural areas in the rest of the country.
This country pioneered in the development of library facilities. But we can no longer rest on our laurels. National Library Week gives us an opportunity to spotlight the unfinished agenda.
Eighty million people in the United States have inadequate library service. Twenty-five and a half million have no public library service at all. Eleven million children have no access to school libraries.
I take pride in my small part in passing the Library Services Act of 1956. But neither the Administration nor the Congress has seen fit to implement that Act fully to bring public library service to rural areas. I am hopeful that this year Congress will appropriate the full amount authorized in matching grants to the states.
But the primary problem is not simply one of money – it is one of attitude. It is a question of whether we are more interested in reading books or making books – in Maverick or Macbeth – Zorro rather than Zola – Peter Gunn or Peer Gynt. The question is whether, in this age of crisis, we will remember the words of the Old Testament – that "wisdom is better than strength … and a wise man is better than a strong one."
If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to live up to our national promise and live up to our national destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries.
For what we need now in this nation, more than atomic power, or airpower, or financial, industrial or even manpower, is brainpower. The dinosaur was bigger and stronger than anyone else – he may even have been more pious – but he was also dumber. And look what happened to him.
I do not confuse brainpower with word power. No age has ever been more prolific of words. Some people are said to have an instinct for the jugular. Official Washington today has an instinct for the windpipe.
But words are not enough. Missiles are not enough. Atoms are not enough. All of these may help us gain time to find a solution – but they are not a solution themselves.
What we need most of all is a constant flow of new ideas – ideas on how to break the deadlocks in Germany and the Middle East, the impasse in Algeria, the stalemate on disarmament – ideas on new defensive and deterrent strength and strategy. And we cannot obtain new ideas until we have new books and new authors, and more newspapers such as the Cleveland Press willing to encourage them: or a Government and a nation and a public opinion which respect new ideas and controversial books, and respect the people who write them. For our country has surmounted great crises in the past, not because of our wealth, not because of our rhetoric, not because we had longer cars and whiter iceboxes and bigger television screens than anyone else, but because our books and our ideas were more compelling and more penetrating and more wise and enduring.
A tired nation, said David Lloyd George, is always a Tory nation. And the United States today cannot afford to be either tired or Tory. For however difficult, however discouraging, however sensitive these issues must be – they must be faced.
Let us reaffirm our belief in debating with dignity and differing with respect – a debate that is courteous but candid, friendly but frank, incisive without becoming inflammatory, constructive without sinking into mere caution.
For the hard, tough question for the next decade – for this or any other group of Americans – is whether any free society – with its freedom of choice – its breadth of opportunity – its range of alternatives – can meet the single-minded advance of the Communist system.
Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction – but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space and the inside of men’s minds? We and the Russians now have the power to destroy with one blow one-quarter of the earth’s population – a feat not accomplished since Cain slew Abel.
For the Russian peasant has looked up from his hoe to fling Sputnik into outer space – opening not a new frontier of hope for all mankind, but a new and somber frontier of fear. We cannot hope to escape a prolonged and powerful competition with Soviet power – a competition which demands that we act from enlightened impulses but never act impulsively.
Can we meet this test of survival and still maintain our traditions of literary freedom and dissent? I think we can. For it is the enduring faith of the American tradition that there is no real conflict between freedom and security – between liberty and abundance. Through centuries of crises, the American tradition has demonstrated, on the contrary, that freedom is the ally of security – and that liberty is the architect of abundance.
So let the debate go on – and may the best ideas prevail.
For only in this way can we as a self-governing people choose wisely and thoughtfully in our task of self-government. And it is only in this way that we can demonstrate once again that freedom is the handmaiden of security – and that the truth will make us free.
The Communists, on the other hand, have no such inner strength – and this is one of our advantages. When a Russian novelist questions some of the basic tenets of Soviet society, his name is reviled and his book is banned. Foreign ideas and books are resisted like a plague, not considered on their merits. The world as it is reported in Soviet books must correspond with the world as it is viewed through the eyes of the party. No critic of the regime, no independent thinker, is given a passport to travel. No citizen advances in the Communist community without rigid adherence to party dogma. All this, in the long run, can only lead to weakness.
I want to make sure that never happens in this country. I want to make sure we know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the "Bill of Rights" is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty. Let us not be afraid of debate or dissent – let us not avoid criticism or non-conformity – let us encourage it. For if we should ever abandon these basic American traditions in the name of fighting Communism, what would it profit us to win the whole world when we would have lost our own soul?
But to keep that faith alive – to keep that message meaningful at a time of doubt and despair and disunity – will require more thought and more effort on your part in the press – and on our part in government – than ever before. It will require leadership better equipped than any since Lincoln’s Day to make clear to our people the vast spectrum of our challenges.
In the words of Woodrow Wilson: "We must neither run with the crowd nor deride it – but seek sober counsel for it – and for ourselves."
In 1861 the College of William and Mary in desolated Virginia closed its doors for almost seven years. The students were gone. The faculty was dispersed. The buildings were torn. But every morning during those seven painful years President Ewell carefully ascended the steps and rang the chapel bell. It was an act of consecration, a proclamation that learning would again return to that stricken land and touch it with abiding glory. Cannot the hope and anguish of our own blundering but bountiful age awaken a similar spirit of compassion and honor in our writers and artists? The whole world is waiting with eager gratitude for that message. So are we in America. Let us at least be worthy of the high destiny of American literature and art.
Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 902, "Cleveland Press Book and Author luncheon, Cleveland, Ohio, 26 April 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.