Like pretty much all of Sahl’s records, I believe, this one is recorded live and captures a single performance, in this case at “the hungry i” nightclub in San Francisco where Sahl frequently performed.
“Here we are on the new frontier,” Sahl opens, getting a chuckle as he pauses afterwards. “Cuba,” he continues, and gets a bigger laugh.
The “new frontier” of course referred to John F. Kennedy’s administration, then only a few months old, and the ambitious goals and “vigah” (as JFK would say) characterizing it. Kennedy first used the phrase when accepting the Democratic party’s nomination for president in July 1960 where he spoke of “a new frontier -- the frontier of the 1960s -- a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”
That same speech finds Kennedy characterizing his Republican counterpart Nixon as an unworthy successor to Eisenhower, and in fact Kennedy employs a poker reference during that section of his speech that also evokes domestic programs of the most recent Democratic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Getting back to Sahl, his cynical reapplication of the “new frontier” idea to Cuba refers to the volatile climate then present in the spring of 1961 and the U.S.’s perception of the danger posed by the Fidel Castro-led Communist country located about 90 miles off the shore of Florida.
Just a little later, Sahl expresses that cynicism again when he jokingly speaks of being in Florida and residents there telling him “he’s a real threat, Castro, because you can see the island.” “I used to look and I’d say ‘Well, I still can’t see it.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, it’s right behind that aircraft carrier.’” That line gets a big laugh, too.
Sahl also refers at the very start of the record to the Academy Awards taking place the night of his show. That got me curious to look up when exactly that might have been, and it just so happens today is the anniversary -- April 17, 1961 -- kind of a weird coincidence. Then I realized that today is also the anniversary of the start of the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempt to overthrow the Castro regime that marked a major early misstep by Kennedy.
“The invasion of Cuba is on,” says Sahl, referring to the news of that very day. Still early, it’s clear from the way he speaks of it that the American public isn’t yet aware of what exactly is happening.
“He said that Castro can look to our government for help if he’s been rejected by his own people,” says Sahl, paraphrasing from Stevenson’s speech of that day. “And uh... Stevenson should know.” (About such rejection, that is.)
It wouldn’t be long before the invasion would fail and Kennedy would own up to the involvement of the U.S. in the plot just a few days later (on April 21). Thus was Stevenson made to look especially bad for his claim that afternoon, and in fact would consider resigning his position though was eventually encouraged to stay on. And, of course, Kennedy and his administration would take a big hit, too.
The Bay of Pigs would set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis that took place about a year-and-a-half later, a historical event that we discuss in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class thanks to its frequent comparison to a poker hand full of bluffs and re-bluffs between Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.
Anyhow, just wanted to share that weird coincidence of having dialed up Sahl’s record on the anniversary of it having been recorded. Here is that opening to Sahl’s The New Frontier, if you’re curious to hear it yourself: