The following article is my way of remembering the passing away of Robert F. Kennedy 40 years ago:
He was not a great speaker and he occasionally stammered in public, yet he moved millions with his words. His record as Attorney General of the United States during the Kennedy Administration was considered mixed, yet he is remembered for his courage and his integrity. As Senator from the state of New York, he had few achievements, yet he towered over his colleagues as a beacon of hope and the keeper of JFK flame of idealism. Forty years later, a man who lost his life in his quest for the US presidency is remembered as the last great authentic politician of his time. Some would venture to add, no one has since matched his promise and his inspiration.
Soon after his assassination, a special publication of Life magazine presented a look at his life and times. On the back cover, the authors mused as to whether one could justify his candidacy and the ‘larger than life’ portrayal of his life, had he not been the brother of President John F. Kennedy. They concluded that Bobby Kennedy’s candidacy was justified in its own right. It is significant that we recall why and why he is so often referred to in this current presidential election year.
Before JFK became president in 1960, the younger Kennedy labored in the shadow of his brother. His major claim to fame until then was his role in securing his brother’s nomination for the Democratic Party and in orchestrating the electoral victory in November 1960. Responding to the pressures of the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK went on to name Bobby as the Attorney General where he distinguished himself mostly by his relentless fight against organized crime.
The election victory of John F. Kennedy in 1960 ushered in a decade of turmoil and transformational change. If JFK’s victory as the first Roman Catholic to be elected president was significant, it paled by comparison with the crescendo of the civil rights movement and eventual legislation, the divisive war in Vietnam and the landing of a man on the moon. It was a period of debate, confrontation, sometimes violent, and polarization. Three assassinations (JFK, Martin Luther King, and RFK) will be remembered as evidence of a time of violent conflict and fundamental change in the course of America. Let us revisit the 1960’s.
If President Kennedy represented change and a new direction in 1960 (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”), Martin Luther King embodied inspiration. Dr. King, a young man with the vision and conviction of non violent change, inspired and mobilized Americans of different races with his call for justice and equality. It was he who said that we must judge one another ‘not on the basis of our color, but on the content of our character.” Under Dr. King’s leadership, and with President Kennedy acknowledging the civil rights battle as a moral issue, America came to grips with having to deal with its original sin. Later, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the legislation first introduced during JFK’s administration came to pass thereby ending legal segregation. In 1965, LBJ also had Congress adopt the Voting Rights Act.
The next defining moment of the sixties was the Vietnam War. Following the failures of France in achieving peace in Indochina, the United States stepped up its involvement and activity in the region. Under President Kennedy, US advisors were sent to support the allies in South Vietnam against the communist guerillas, the Viet Cong, and their supporters in Communist North Vietnam. Later, President Johnson would increase the US role by sending combat troops. Casualties mounted significantly and the outcome of the war was in doubt leading to anti-war protests and an eventual anti-war movement of young Americans protesting the continuation of the war. Bobby Kennedy, now a Senator from New York and the heir to the Kennedy legacy, was looked upon as the one hope to extricate America from this unpopular war that he had originally supported. Kennedy, while admitting some initial error, eventually changed course on the war and opposed Johnson’s Vietnam policies.
By 1968, the anti-war movement was in full force and the pressures on Bobby Kennedy to run for the presidency intensified. While there was no love lost with President Johnson, Bobby hesitated to break from an incumbent President of his own party. In February 1968, however, he formally announced his run for the presidency.
What followed is possibly the most intense period of turmoil in the history of the United States. Lyndon B. Johnson started a peace initiative with North Vietnam while announcing he would not seek reelection. Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota and anti-war activist, continued his quest for the presidency fighting for the same constituency as RFK. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. Race riots broke out that very night in all the major cities in America with one exception. Enter Bobby Kennedy.
On the night of the King assassination, Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis to a group of citizens including a large contingent of African Americans. Internet and all-news stations did not exist at the time, and Bobby announced the bad news to the crowd. That this city was the only major US city to avoid a riot is largely attributed to Bobby. Time Magazine columnist, Joe Klein, in his book ‘Politics Lost’ refers to Kennedy’s speech as the last great authentic address made by a leading politician in recent times. He may be right.
When addressing the crowd, Kennedy spoke without notes and, in his unique way, referred to poets to bring solace to the devastated crowd. He quoted the Greek poet, Aeschylus, who wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God”. He then asked the crowd to dedicate themselves “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Two months later, June 5, 1968, after winning the California primary against his rival, McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy was shot and pronounced dead on June 6. He was just 42 years old.
The Bobby I remember is the one who literally grew before our very eyes. From the tragic assassination of his brother on November 22, 1963, we saw the transformation of Bobby Kennedy. From the ruthless, efficient backroom operative to a compassionate, inspiring and idealistic leader who was able to bring together rich and poor, old and young, black and white, and the disadvantaged to believe once again that politics was a noble endeavor and the ideals of America were worth cherishing and defending in the world. People cried when he died and his last remaining brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, eulogized him “as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, who saw war and tried to stop it, who saw suffering and tried to heal it”.
This year we have witnessed an incredible and historic campaign within the Democratic Party. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have found inspiration and strength in the works and the example of Bobby Kennedy. Some see the current mobilization of young voters for Senator Obama as reminiscent of the youth of the sixties for Bobby. While it is far too early to equate Obama with Kennedy, it is clear that a political leader able to inspire and mobilize is unique and sometimes comes only to a new generation of voters wishing to be empowered. Forty years ago, we heard this call. I never forget to mention that I was led to public service by the example of Bobby Kennedy. I often refer to his favorite quote: “Some people see things as they are and ask why? But, I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” In his times, words still mattered and he touched the spirit of America. This captures the essence of Bobby Kennedy and why it is worthwhile to remember him forty years later.