A local organizer made some occasional announcements to keep the crowd apprised of Kennedy’s progress. (e.g. “The senator’s car has just left Yipsilanti and will be here in a few minutes.”) However, no local politicians were vamping at the microphone to fill the time because this was supposed to be a little event involving a few remarks before the senator retired rather than a full-fledged campaign stop. When Kennedy’s car finally arrived, he and some aides had to push their way through the crowd to a spot to the left of the Union’s main entrance. Because the audience was quite impatient to hear their candidate, the introduction was very short. Despite the very late arrival, he got a warm reception. Standing at the microphone in a topcoat, he began with an attempt at humor, a double entendre along the lines of, “I didn’t come to the University of Michigan to make a speech, I came here to go to bed, and I hope you will all join me.” The line was more nuanced than I report it here and played well with the friendly college audience.
JFK started to repeat the standard speech he had already given twice since arriving in Michigan but fairly quickly interrupted himself. He looked over the enthusiastic crowd and noted the hour and the cold that underlined the eagerness and commitment of the young people who had waited so long. He began an unscripted talk about harnessing the energy and dedication of youth like us in the service of the country. Marsha and I were standing on top of a low brick wall across the plaza from the microphone to get a good view, and it seemed as if Kennedy were speaking directly to us.
For the reporters who were barely awake and expecting the same old political speech, this was news! A bold headline across the top of the Detroit paper the next morning declared something like “Kennedy Proposes Youth Service Corps.” I am not sure the story about the TV debate with Nixon even made the front page. Those of us who had been present the night before were somewhat surprised in the morning to see the impact this deviation from the usual campaign rhetoric had created.
On the campus, the “Peace Corps” was a main topic of discussion for days, and it pushed other political issues to the side. We students, the audience for JFK’s remarks that night, were annoyed by certain Republican politicians and some of the pundits who reacted by making fun of the youth service idea. Some people were inspired into action and organized support through petitions and by spreading the word to other campuses. For me, on the other hand, the idea simmered quietly and was a topic of many late night conversations with Tom Robinson, my roommate, another person who was present that night and who responded to Kennedy’s idea.
I later read that the concept for a “Peace Corps” came from some young strategists in Senator Humphrey’s office, but the original plan had been to wait until after the election before revealing it as one of the incoming administration’s new action programs. So “youth service” was not exactly JFK’s spontaneous idea of the moment. However, the patient eager young audience on that frosty night in Ann Arbor, apparently ripe to hear this politician call on their latent altruism, influenced Kennedy’s timing for making the proposal public.
I don’t remember the specific words of the challenges issued by JFK that night, but he wanted to know if we were prepared to give two years of our lives to help people in other countries and serve our own country at the same time. I had come to the gathering with an ulterior motive and had not expected to be impressed by a politician, but I was. The appeal to altruism and call for service resonated with me and many of my fellow U of M students.