When the New Frontier came to the Last Frontier

In his State of the Union address, President Obama quoted a Robert Kennedy speech that was made here in Seattle. It's still a timely message for the city, and a nation, struggling with the future.

Crosscut archive image.

President Obama has appointed new military, CIA leadership.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama quoted a Robert Kennedy speech that was made here in Seattle. It's still a timely message for the city, and a nation, struggling with the future.

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement." Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. — Barack Obama, Jan. 25, 2011

President Obama evoked Sputnik and echoed the language of the New Frontier in his State of the Union speech last week (Jan. 25). Both are indelibly linked to Seattle nearly a half century ago. Seattle's 1962 world's fair, the Century 21 Exposition, came into being and focus as part of the post-Sputnik mobilization to boost American technology and science in the space race. The  theme "Man in the Space Age" put the '62 fair on the launch pad of the New Frontier, and federal funding flowed because of the exposition's commitment to promoting science.

The New Frontier was also tangible in other ways, notably a rainy-day visit to Seattle by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in August of 1962. Along with him were a passel of Kennedy and Shriver kids and spouses (I won't name them all here) who descended on the fair for a frenetic one-day tour.

According to the newspaper accounts, the kids wore out two guides and two cops as they ate cotton candy, ran from pavilion to pavilion, lunched at the Space Needle, and rode numerous Gay Way rides like the Wild Mouse roller coaster. The Seattle Times headline: "Kennedy Clan Zips Through Fair." 

But the fair was just a prelude to the zipping the Kennedys would do. Their holiday tour included salmon fishing at Westport (they caught a boat load) and a horse-pack trip along the Elwha River with liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and his wife. As Times reporter Don Duncan described it, "The New Frontier is visiting the Last Frontier here." That sentence captured some of the feel of the Kennedy visit, but also spoke to the themes of a speech Kennedy gave while in town on Aug. 7, 1962.

First, a bit of set-up. Washington was still remote enough to be considered a "frontier" city, or one set to soon emerge from its pioneer period. The event that made the difference (and historians still often use it as the marker between "old" and "new" Seattle) was the '62 fair. 

Originally conceived as a local booster project to mark the city's 50 years since its first international fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, the fair organizers had been searching for an actual expo theme. The marriage of the Sputnik moment and Century 21 came about in part because Warren G. Magnuson, the state's senior U.S. senator, knew that that was where the money was: build a fair on the theme of science, and Maggie could deliver federal support, which included money for a USA pavilion devoted to science (and is now the Pacific Science Center).

Before 1962, Seattle was a stuffy, somewhat shabby provincial seaport and "cultural dustbin" in the far upper left corner of the lower 48. Afterward, with the help of the Jet Age, defense and federal funding, and major infrastructure projects (sewers, freeways) the city emerged as a global player in building the next century, with its eyes on the stars. It was a way all of America could measure progress: from log cabins to space rockets in a century.

The newspapers of the time convey a city with feet in two worlds. A Seattle Times front page story details the Kennedy clan's fair visit (so, too, did a next-day feature on the "Women's News" page, followed by ads touting such Mad Men era delights as Miracle Whip for 45 cents a jar, chuck steak at 49 cents per pound, and fruit cocktail at 5 cans for $1). At the very top of the front page, above the Kennedy story, the Times printed a chart handicapping the day's races at Longacres race track. It's Damon Runyon-era journalism running smack into Camelot. There were a lot of strange juxtapositions at the world's fair, where a statue of lumberjack Paul Bunyan competed for your attention with the latest satellite or space capsule: New Frontier meets Last Frontier indeed.

Kennedy's speech focused on this very transition, the tension between the hope and aspirations for the future and the tug of the past. RFK, of course, was rooting for tomorrow, and he liked the fact that Seattle, while part of the pioneering tradition, was not tethered to its past. He said:

"This is the spirit of the Pacific Northwest and of pioneer America — the unceasing search for new frontiers. And it is, I may perhaps add, particularly refreshing to come from the other Washington to a region of the country which is not mired in the past, not constantly looking back-ward over its shoulder, not timidly content with the status quo, not weighed down by doubt and foreboding, not fearful of the future — but instead peering boldly and joyfully ahead into the 21st Century."

Seattle was a town that seemed to embody that sense of "vigor" that the Kennedys embraced, and the fair made manifest the goals of the New Frontier they envisioned:

"This Fair has on vivid display some of the fantastic resources which science and technology have placed at man's disposal. It must inspire us therefore to think beyond the present — to visualize how many can put these vast new powers to the service of freedom and opportunity for humanity.

As your mountain lifts our hearts above the care of every day existence, so the Fair lifts our minds and our sights and subordinates the irritations of the present to the potentialities of the future...."

The fair, in essence, is a spiritual motivator, like nature, to transcend. Our challenge is to live up to our environment by thinking as big as the land itself.

Kennedy, as attorney general, was knee-deep in the Civil Rights cause, and while he made no bones about our Cold War challenges, he saw the struggle for social justice as a primary part of a hopeful future vision. Success was not Sputniks alone. Exciting as they were, the 21st century was not just about missiles, monorails, and Space Needles:

"[M]any Americans too, I think, share broad and deep hopes for our own land — the hope of a land in which every child born has a decent opportunity for education, medical care and employment — of a land where intolerance and segregation become a memory, and a Negro child born in a cotton field in Alabama is as secure in his rights as a white child born here in Washington — of a land where poverty is a thing of the past, and every American has a free and equal chance to realize his own individual talents and possibilities..."

That is something we're still striving for today. RFK then moved on to the section where Obama found his money quote:

"If this is the vision of the future — if this is the direction in which we want to move — the next thing we must consider is how we propose to get there, and what obstacles lie in our path. For such a vision is never self-fulfilling. We cannot stand idly by and expect our dreams to come true under their own power. The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present."

"The future is not a gift: it is an achievement." A beautiful, profound line, but not a headline the next day. Seattle was dazzled by the Kennedy energy, concerned about the Soviets, defense, and America's position in the world. Seattle wasn't particularly partisan either. Two days after the Kennedy clan zipped on, former Vice President Richard Nixon, defeated in 1960 by Robert's brother Jack, and his family came to town to do the fair and were given an enthusiastic welcome, which surprised Nixon, who seemed not to expect such "bipartisan" treatment. Nixon, of course, was always expecting enemies to surface. Still, he was very impressed with the fair, and it was a nice break from his hard-fought 1962 campaign for California governor.

Still, the paper followed Kennedy into the woods and the Times ran a front page picture of RFK and Douglas hiking on an Olympics trail. Justice Douglas, in jeans and flannel, looks like he belongs; the Easterner Kennedy is wearing a pair of jodhpurs with street shoes, amusing, but not quite as bad as Nixon on the beach in business shoes.

Still, RFK's embrace of the old growth along with his spirited defense of a bright, if hard-won, future, seemed to show an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of the region and the spirit of Seattle: a future-focused people with a frontier mentality, inspired by nature and fueled by ambition. If any place understood New Frontier idealism, it was us.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.