It's Friday, May 1, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation intended to be educational or evocative. Today's comes from Stewart Udall, a scion of the dynastic Arizona political family that has served this country for generations. And it comes in the form of a haunting poem.
Nearly six decades ago, Udall was secretary of the Department of the Interior in the young Kennedy administration. On this date in 1961, at the bequest of the president and first lady, he co-hosted the first in a series of events showcasing the arts.
Jacqueline Kennedy receives much of the credit for infusing culture into the political life of the capital, and deservedly so, but she had help, especially from members of her husband's cabinet. The formal name of the series of events that began 59 years ago tonight was the President's Cabinet Artist Series. The first was titled "An Evening With Robert Frost."
It took place in the State Department auditorium for the same reason John F. Kennedy held press conferences there: Washington had few suitable large venues for formal events. And so it came to be that on May 1, 1961, Stewart Udall found himself serving a glass of sherry to the world famous 87-year-old poet in the secretary of state's private dining room.
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Robert Frost would die less than two years after the May 1, 1961, event held in his honor -- on Jan. 29, 1963, just over two years since he recited a poem at Kennedy's inauguration. But after that, the president had irked Frost's daughter Lesley by snubbing the poet for speaking out-of-school to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
When JFK sought to mend fences with his fellow New England icon by accepting an Oct. 26, 1963, invitation to speak at Amherst College's dedication of its Robert Frost Library, Stewart Udall worried aloud, only half-in-jest, that Lesley would "make a scene." Udall told the president puckishly that he might look from the lectern and see his interior secretary "wrestling on the ground with a woman."
"We'll give you the benefit of the doubt, Stewart," Kennedy quipped in reply.
After the tragedy in Dallas, the cabinet gradually changed, and the impetus behind the artist series dissipated. Attempts were made to keep the presentations going under JFK's successor, and for a while they succeeded. Some 15 "Evenings With…" took place between May 1, 1961 and May 26, 1966 -- featuring the likes of Andres Segovia and Archibald MacLeish -- but those magical evenings eventually ran aground on shoals of bad news from Southeast Asia.
A decade later, as he contemplated the death of JFK and squandered hope of the Thousand Days, Stewart Udall penned a poem titled "On the Hillside at Arlington," which ended with this stanza:
Then why do we stir our griefs
Or yearn for cancelled constellations
When we know all meteors
Sign the sky once – only once?
And that's your quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.