CBC News
John Kerry's poetic gamble
Dan Brown, CBC News Online | July 26, 2004

John Kerry has been quoting the poetry of Langston Hughes on the campaign trail. (AP Photo)
No matter which candidate wins this November's presidential vote, 2004 will go down in U.S. history as a remarkable election year. That's because John Kerry, the Democratic White House hopeful, has been reciting poetry as part of his stump speech. And that kind of thing doesn't happen often in America.

Although there isn't a strict separation between the worlds of presidential politics and poetry, they don't collide with great frequency these days. And Kerry's use of Let America Be America Again, a poem written by the late Langston Hughes, represents a head-on collision– not only has the Massachusetts senator adopted the title of the poem as his official slogan, but he is also quoting entire lines from Hughes on the campaign trail.

When Kerry was in Pittsburgh on July 6 to announce his choice of John Edwards as running mate, for instance, this is how he closed his speech:

"Langston Hughes was a poet, a black man and a poor man. And he wrote in the 1930s powerful words that apply to all of us today. He said 'Let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be for those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, for those whose hand at the foundry – something Pittsburgh knows about – for those whose plow in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again.' "

"We've come here today to put a team together that's going to fight to bring back America's mighty dream," Kerry continued. "We're going out of here today to let America be America again. Let's go out and make it happen together." Hughes – one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – intended the stinging piece to be a call for the U.S. to return to its founding ideals. By referring to Hughes, Kerry becomes one of the few presidential candidates – or presidents ౎ to embrace poetry in modern U.S. history, to use for political purposes the work of those whom Percy Bysshe Shelley called "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

"It's rare," says Larry Sabato of the frequency with which presidential aspirants have been known to quote poetry. Sabato is the head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He says that in his 35 years of punditry, this is the first time he has been asked about the role of poetry in the race for the presidency.

"It's not the norm in our politics," he says of Kerry's new habit.

John F. Kennedy relied on poet Robert Frost in the campaign of 1960. (AP Photo/File)
Sabato does recall that John F. Kennedy quoted lines from Robert Frost's poetry throughout the campaign of 1960. And after Kennedy was elected, Frost read at the inauguration (as a presidential candidate, Kennedy's brother, Bobby, quoted Aeschylus in 1968 after hearing of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.). Perhaps inspired by JFK, Bill Clinton tapped Maya Angelou to speak at his first swearing-in.

But apart from those few Democratic examples, there are almost no presidents who have demonstrated a familiarity with poetry, although following the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Republican Ronald Reagan did rely on poetry to comfort the nation. In Reagan's address to the nation, speechwriter Peggy Noonan included lines from the poem High Flight, which greatly helped to comfort the country.

Regardless, Sabato says the American people prefer their chief executive be plain-spoken.

"A president of the United States, at least in the American mind, is the leader of the free world. And a leader of the free world is supposed to be grounded in reality, in realpolitik. And quoting poetry suggests someone who may be a daydreamer and we tend not to elect daydreamers as president."

There are some, however, who are delighted that Kerry is making verse such an integral part of his campaign.

"Needless to say, we are thrilled whenever poetry gets mentioned in the news," says Charles Flowers, associate director for the Academy of American Poets, a literary non-profit group that lobbies to increase the visibility of verse.

Flowers, who is 38 years old, says he can't remember another candidate for president quoting poetry in his lifetime. He says doing so requires bravery because it's easy for anti-intellectuals to make fun of poetry.

That said, Flowers believes Kerry's choice of Langston Hughes is an inspired one: "I think it was pretty smart of Kerry to pick something from this particular poet."

According to Flowers, Hughes is a populist writer with a broad following. His appeal lies in his clear imagery, his jazz-inflected diction and his ability to see the poetic in the everyday. Of the poets listed on his organization's website, Flowers says, Hughes is the most clicked-on versifier.

But – even given Hughes' widespread popularity – reciting poetry is still an unproven political strategy. It's an especially risky one for Kerry, since it may help to reinforce the public's image of him as aloof, as being separated from the common person.

"But this particular poet has a very strong connection with people," counters Flowers. "People really respond to [Hughes]. It's not as if he's quoting Shakespeare or Pound or T.S. Eliot – who's an amazing poet, but a very different kind of poet." In other words, choosing a poet who isn't known for flowery language or intricate phrasing was the right thing for Kerry to do.

President George W. Bush has made a name for himself as almost an anti-poet. (AP Photo)
Which brings up the obvious question for political junkies: Is Kerry using the poem as a method, albeit a subtle one, to create a contrast with President George W. Bush? After all, Bush has made a name for himself as someone who sees the world clearly and speaks plainly, as almost an anti-poet. He does not make conscious attempts to impress voters with verbose speechifying, and can sometimes come across as tongue-tied. Did Kerry pick Hughes so that Democrats can say of their candidate "See, here's an articulate man, a man who's at ease dealing with complex ideas and making nuanced distinctions?"

"They don't have to say that," answers Sabato. "The average American already believes that without the Kerry people saying anything. It's obvious that Kerry is articulate and suave and all the rest of it. And George Bush has a reputation – unfairly, I believe – for being a blithering idiot. John Kerry doesn't need poetry to make that point."

Which isn't to say that the Democrat gains nothing by quoting Let America Be America Again. Sabato, for one, thinks the poem's title is an effective slogan: "It means whatever you want it to mean, so it's perfect." In Sabato's view, it ranks with the favoured slogan for Congressional candidates – "You know where he stands" – which is so pliable than voters can read anything into it.

The poem's title does not, however, resonate with James Taranto. Taranto is the editor of Opinion Journal, the online arm of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. He has written about Hughes several times since Kerry started quoting the poet, and it's his judgment that Let America Be American Again is, in fact, anti-American.

"So America isn't America under the Bush administration? I guess that's the implication," Taranto says.

Taranto believes the poem was "clearly inspired by if not communism, a na�ve sympathy for communism" that was fashionable at the time Hughes wrote. Kerry is familiar enough with Hughes that he was asked to write the introduction to a new collection of the writer's work, so Taranto can't imagine Kerry was unaware of the poem's communist subtext.

Taranto says the poem will appeal only to voters who are already ardently opposed to Bush: "As a political matter, it's talking to the base. It's talking to the angry left."

"I don't think it works with more centrist voters because the idea that America has stopped being America is kind of offensive," he adds.

Taranto does not know if Kerry chose the poem himself. According to some reports, a staffer brought it to the candidate's attention (the Kerry campaign did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment).

Sabato also can't say if using Hughes was Kerry's idea: "You never know what they do and what one of their four million assistants does. I have no idea." The political scientist does, however, say it would be a welcome change if Kerry's use of poetry was to catch on and play a larger role in American politics from now on.

"Frankly, I would like to have the occasional president with the soul of a poet. I'm not the average American, but I think it's kind of attractive."

John Kerry
Occupation: John Kerry Democratic Senator
Born: Dec. 11, 1943
Experience: Decorated Vietnam veteran, where he served from 1966 to 1970
Has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985, where– according to his official bio–he has �championed economic opportunity, fiscal responsibility and a strong foreign policy for America.�

In his own words:
�We all have a responsibility to serve. For some, it�s teaching kids to read. For others, it�s keeping our parks clean or protecting our homeland. We all have to do our part.But it�s up to us to give everyone who can contribute the chance to do so.�

Langston Hughes
Occupation: Poet
Born: Feb. 1, 1902
Died: May 27, 1967
Experience: Award-winning writer, leader of the Harlem Renaissance
First book of poetry, The Weary Blues, published in 1926
According to his Academy of American Poets bio, Hughes �wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.�

In his own words:
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today –O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Let America Be America Again from The Academy of American Poets website.

A profile of Langston Hughes from The Academy of American Poets website.

John Kerry�s official website.
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