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November 23rd, 2017

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When the New Frontier burned bright

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published April 14, 2016

When the New Frontier burned bright
President John Kennedy takes a hard hat from astronaut John Glenn on Feb. 23, 1962 as they stand on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

They trooped to a Virginia hillside, speckled with white monuments standing out against the gray April skies, to reflect on, to salute, and then, with a bugler’s sad tattoo, to bury the New Frontier.

For placed into the freshly shoveled earth was America’s last aviator avatar, a man remembered as the first of his countrymen to orbit the Earth but also a combat fighter pilot, senator — and symbol of a nation’s highest hopes and its highest achievements.

But also buried, along with John Herschel Glenn Jr., who died early last December but wasn’t given Arlington Cemetery burial honors until now, was the idealism and high-minded values of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.

To be sure, the New Frontier was more than a half-century old. It mixture of national optimism, national purpose, and — lest we forget — national security survived the assassination of its midwife. It was the soundtrack of the 1960s.

Its spirit sent Americans into space through NASA, to foreign lands through the Peace Corps, to remote Appalachian hollows through VISTA. It sent scores of Americans into politics, some of whom mimicked the Kennedy style (hands in their suit-coat pocket), some of whom made the 35th president’s causes their own. It battled segregation (“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution”) and cultivated the arts (“The new frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a new frontier for American art”).

It was an LP record that was played long after Victrolas — the record player that the president used to play the recording of “Camelot” celebrating what the Broadway show called a “shining moment” — faded from the scene. Indeed, by the turn of the century, let alone by the second decade of the 21st century, it became increasingly hard to recall that, as the “Camelot” lyrics put it, “once there was a fleeting wisp of glory” to the New Frontier.

That is because the New Frontier was besmirched by tragic miscalculations in Cuba and Vietnam, and because the New Frontier itself grew frayed around its edges. Americans lost the sense of national purpose and national destiny that the New Frontier promised, in part because of Vietnam, in part because any creed grows stale, in part because the troubadours of the New Frontier grew old and frail and, like Glenn, died.

Indeed, Glenn, who died at age 95, was very likely the last living symbol of the New Frontier.

The 7-year-olds pictured in grainy films gazing with wonder into the skies as Glenn’s Atlas booster climbed into space now are eligible for Social Security. Kennedy died in 1963, all the other of the Original Seven astronauts died before Glenn, and with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 2009, all of the Kennedy brothers of the president’s generation are gone.

Frank Sinatra, whose “High Hopes” song was employed by the Kennedy campaign, died almost two decades ago. It’s been a long time since anyone here has sung, as Sinatra did, of “high apple pie, in the sky, hopes.” When Barack Obama, born in the sixth month of the New Frontier, wrote his early memoir, it was called “The Audacity of Hope.”

The New Frontier was Kennedy’s effort to graft a youthful and inexperienced candidate onto a tradition of high-minded progressive ideals dating to the New Nationalism (Theodore Roosevelt), New Freedom (Woodrow Wilson) and New Deal (Franklin Roosevelt). Three decades later, Bill Clinton, himself deeply affected by the Kennedy legacy, spoke of a New Covenant, which echoed Kennedy themes: “a solemn agreement between the people and their government based not simply on what each of us can take but what all of us must give to our nation.”

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Kennedy described the New Frontier not as a set of promises but “a set of challenges,” encapsulating “not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Before long the term New Frontiersman came to mean a cadre of Americans of trim fitness, polished appearance and deep intellectualism, possessed of the early tools of the new technology and a broad sense of possibility.

They went into jungles wearing shorts and carrying briefcases. Fluent in the newspeak of cost-benefit analysis and modern game theory, they spoke darkly of mutual-assured destruction and brightly of a war on poverty. They may have dived into swimming pools in poplin suits but they also prepared for spaceflight in water. They were adept at dropping a line from Carlyle into a speech, but they also invited a poet to the president’s inauguration. In a speech delivered a month before his death, Kennedy celebrated poetry in a remarkable passage, inconceivable for any of his successors and few of his predecessors:

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” he said at Amherst College, as part of a groundbreaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library. “When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Glenn was no poet. In orbit the astronaut, bland but not blase, confined his remarks to the oh-what-a-view variety. He never mastered the poetry of campaigning as a presidential contender. But he endured as a symbol of American virtue and of New Frontier values for his vigor, courage, determination and optimism. On the launch pad as on the stump, his thumbs-up gesture was an irrepressible impulse. Glenn had the attributes the columnist Mary McGrory identified as being most cherished by President Kennedy: the “decorum and dash that were in his special style.”

This is not an age of decorum, nor of dash. It is a time of invective, not idealism; of crudity and not civility. In this context, elegies to the values of the New Frontier often prompt cynicism, for in the Kennedy years there was failure (the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev), deceit (the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem), and deplorable moral lapses (wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr.).

But by June 1963, when in consecutive days Kennedy delivered remarkable speeches on civil rights and international peace, there were glimmers of greatness in the Kennedy presidency. Even if the actions of that period never matched the values of that period, still the president reached for the stars, as did John H. Glenn, buried, along with the New Frontier he symbolized.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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