Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Remembering Bobby Kennedy

Forty-one years ago -- June 6, 1968 -- Bobby Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet. It’s still hard to put into words what Bobby meant to me and to millions of people around the world. In a time of turmoil and war, hatred and division, like no other this country had experienced since the Civil War, Bobby stepped forward out of a sense of profound duty and love of country.

It was an excruciatingly difficult decision for him. He wasn’t just any backbencher, like Senator McCarthy, with little left to lose. He was the leader of the Democratic Party’s growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, waged by an increasingly isolated and unpopular president. Most of his advisers urged him not run that year, not to challenge a sitting president, to wait until 1972. Only the young turks in his staff, Adam Walinsky and Jeff Greenfield, pressed Bobby to challenge President Johnson.

When Bobby finally made the decision to enter the race, after Senator McCarthy had come close to beating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, he was skewered by purists on the Left, many of whom had thrown their lot in with McCarthy, and by a cynical media as an “opportunist” and worse.

He said: “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all that I can.”

RFK: Pop Culture Hero by Roy Lichtenstein

In retrospect, the criticism leveled against Bobby seems almost obscene. Bobby entered the presidential race with eyes wide open. Personal ambition never informed his calculations. How could it? He was fully aware of the terrible danger stalking him that would ultimately claim his life. He was fatalistic about it. He had accepted the personal risk as a given. It was the moral courage to do what in his heart he knew to be the right thing that tormented Bobby.

Politically, he knew there was a very great risk that his candidacy could tear the country apart, divide the Democratic Party, and hand Nixon the election. Most of all, he feared that negative perceptions of his motivation as a ruthless opportunist would drown out his message of change -- yes, change -- hope, and restoring America’s values.

One of Bobby’s most beautiful and inspiring speeches, delivered two years earlier to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation, must have weighed heavily on his mind. In it he said:

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.”

In the end, Bobby made a gut check decision. His own words reached into his heart and beckoned him to stand up and be counted. It was that simple. How could Bobby not do his part when our young people were dying by the thousands in Vietnam, our cities were burning, and the nation seemed to be teetering on the verge of anarchy?

Once he had made the decision to run, Bobby confided to friends that he felt liberated, free, as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

At first, Bobby was haunted by the long shadow cast by his brother. The crowds were there for President Kennedy, not him, he told his aides. And then he found his voice. Bobby lacked the smooth, lofty oratory of President Kennedy, but he had a rare gift for connecting with people in a visceral way that is hard to quantify or even fully understand.

I believe the tragedy of his brother’s assassination changed him profoundly. People instinctively understood that. When Cesar Chavez, the legendary union leader of the migrant workers, broke his fast Bobby was there to commune with him in silence. At that moment Bobby had the Latino vote without even saying a word.

Everywhere Bobby went children gathered. They were drawn to him and he to them. A friend remarked that Bobby, himself the father of ten children, did not kiss children as was customary for politicians. Instead, “he would brush a child’s face with his fingers, or touch them gently on their head, as if trying to feel their thoughts.” A political button of the period would mock this special relationship with the slogan: “Lower the voting age to 10.” Freckles, Bobby’s black and white Springer spaniel, went unleashed on the campaign trail with Bobby and gained a following of his own.

Bobby and Freckles Napping Between Campaign Stops

For those of us jaded by modern political campaigns, Bobby’s campaign would have seemed utterly surreal by comparison. There was no choreographed candidate surrounded by handlers telling him to stick to talking points and stay “on message” for the daily media fix. Managed largely by the candidate himself, Bobby’s campaign was described at the time as “a huge, joyous adventure.”

Today, Bobby might be described as a person who is genuine and shows much maligned empathy for his fellow human beings. He could risk damaging his brand, the pundits would caution gravely (as they did about President Obama), if Bobby took this position or that on any given issue. But this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Bobby had the habit of telling “inconvenient truths” decades before the term gained the currency it has today.

He would frequently challenge his audiences by telling them what they did not want to hear. When he spoke to an audience of medical students -- privileged, overwhelmingly white, middle and upper class kids -- who challenged him on who would pay for his proposals to extend health care to the poor, he pointed to a student holding a Reagan balloon and said: “You!” Then he pointed around the room and repeated, “You! You! You!” He continued, “I look around the audience and I don’t see very many black faces of men who are going to become doctors. The fact is the poor have a very difficult time even entering your profession.”

Bobby challenged the moral assumptions of these students, many (I would say, most) who opposed the war in Vietnam for self-serving reasons: they did not want their draft deferments lifted. Kennedy said they had a responsibility to help the poor in our society, reminding them, “it’s the black people who carry the major burden of the struggle in Vietnam.” After the rally he noted ruefully that he wouldn’t get too many votes in that crowd. “They were so comfortable, so comfortable,” he said, shaking his head.

Forty years later, we are still the only developed country that does not provide health care for all our citizens. Ironically, one of the methods being debated for extending universal health care this year is to tax the so-called “Cadillac” health plans of the wealthier citizens to pay for providing health care to the poor.

It’s difficult today to imagine the divisions that threatened to tear this country apart in 1968. Racial tensions were at a boiling point. Martin Luther King’s assassination sparked nationwide riots in the urban ghettos of America that threatened to metastasize into a wider conflict. The National Guard were mobilized to contain the riots.

No white politician dared venture into the inner cities -- except Bobby.

Surrounded only by a small group of hearty aides that included bodyguards Bill Barry and former Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, Bobby plunged into enthusiastic crowds in poor black and Latino neighborhoods. The Black Panthers provided security, splitting the surging crowds as they yelled “make way for the blue-eyed soul brother!”

On the night King was assassinated, Bobby was to attend a rally in a poor black neighborhood of Indianapolis. Bobby was urged to cancel as riots erupted in inner cities across the land. He refused. He went without a police escort. Most in the crowd had not heard the news. Those that did shouted, “what are you doing here, whitey?” and “get out of here, you white son of a bitch!” The danger was real and palpable.

Bobby broke the news to the crowd. Speaking softly, from the heart, he validated their pain and respected their grief. For the first time he spoke in public of his brother’s assassination “by a white man.” He said the choice was between hatred, violence, and division or “love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” He quoted his favorite poet, Aeschylus:

Even 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.

Bobby concluded with a timeless plea:
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

It was one of the great speeches in American history, completely extemporaneous and, one aide remarked, “pure Bob Kennedy.” On that night, as riots erupted throughout the country, Indianapolis was quiet. One black militant said: “We went there for trouble; after he spoke we couldn’t get nowhere.”

The Last Campaign: Making a Difference

A journalist once pegged Bobby “the tribune of the underclass.” Bobby would have been proud of this appellation. When he visited an Indian reservation, whose deplorable conditions have hardly changed to this day, Bobby said without a hint of irony that he wished he had been born an Indian. He expressed admiration for Che Guevara, not for ideological reasons, but for eschewing the comfortable life of an asthmatic doctor to stand up for what he believed in.

On a visit to Chile, Bobby was spat upon by communist students. Yet while touring a copper mine, before officials could stop him, he jumped into a cart going into its bowels to witness working conditions first hand. Bobby emerged saying that if he had to work under such conditions he’d be a communist too.

On the night of his greatest political triumph, after winning the California primary, Bobby Kennedy was poised to capture the Democratic nomination. Observers marveled at how relaxed and comfortable he was, how he had finally cast off the long shadow of his slain brother. He looked every bit a president-to-be.

McCarthy was defeated even as he doggedly persisted. Kennedy had already set his sights on President Johnson’s and the Democratic Party bosses’ anointed candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In the rough and tumble of inside politics, Bobby could be as ruthless as his rep, earned running his brother’s 1960 presidential campaign. Humphrey’s absurdly dissonant slogan, “the politics of joy and happiness,” drew an acid retort from Kennedy who would recite a litany of the nation’s ills, saying there was nothing joyful or happy about them. Bobby’s ace in the hole was Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, the current mayor’s deceased father, who all but assured Kennedy of his support when the time came to put him over the top.

I am convinced that Bobby would have captured the Democratic nomination, united the Democratic Party, and then gone on to defeat Nixon in the fall. For those who loved and admired him, the question that will forever haunt us is how much different would our country be today had Bobby been elected president in 1968?

Playing What if? scenarios is an interesting but ultimately frustrating exercise. No one can be certain that the currents of history will yield the desired results. My favorite quote of Bobby’s is from his speech to the youth of South Africa. In it, he defined the moral challenge for us:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I believe Bobby Kennedy had the greatness to “bend history itself.” He would have been one of the great presidents, at a crucial juncture in our history. Consider the possibilities:

Bobby would have ended the Vietnam war swiftly and honorably, sparing the nation the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger debacle, which left a festering wound, and sparing thousands and thousands of needlessly lost lives. Speaking of the “indecency” of the war, Bobby said:
“While the sun shines in our sky, men are dying on the other side of the Earth. Which of them could have come home and written a great symphony? Which of them could have come home to cure cancer? Which of them might have played in a World Series or given us the gift of laughter from the stage?”

Imagine an America without Nixon, without Watergate, and without the rise of the radical Right. In the absence of these tectonic shifts in American politics, the political pendulum would not have swung back, lost decades later, to the rational center of consensus-building politics only at a time of extreme national crisis –- an economic catastrophe that would likely have been averted.

Imagine an America in which racial reconciliation had occurred generations earlier. Imagine how much healthier our environment and planet would be without the predatory environmental policies of the last three Republican administrations. (To his credit, Nixon had a decent environmental record; the Clean Air Act was passed under his administration.)

Imagine the possibilities. Bobby Kennedy’s bitter rival, Senator Eugene McCarthy, said Bobby’s campaign was “what his life had been about all along. For those few weeks at least, Bobby became a very great man, transcending his own nature and even some of our quibbles with it.”

But it was not to be. And yet, in his painfully brief but magnificent life on this Earth, Bobby Kennedy left us an enduring legacy of hope and idealism. Millions of people were inspired by his example and his words to become active in their communities and live, in some small or large measure, for the greater good –- Bobby’s “tiny ripples of hope” –- a quintessentially American idea.

Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle, many Democratic candidates for president sought to emulate Bobby, with embarrassing results. Jimmy Carter faltered and probably lost his presidency the moment he addressed the nation with his infamous “malaise speech,” to say the country was suffering a “national crisis of confidence.” Carter never used the word, but the speech seems to have been plucked right out of Bobby’s kickoff campaign address to KSU students, which prompted one aide to say, “we’re going all the way!” Bobby said the country was “deep in a malaise of the spirit” and suffering from “a deep crisis of confidence.” He was a different messenger with a different message for a different time.

Bill Clinton was rightfully mocked for his “I feel your pain” remark. Bobby Kennedy never said it, but no one who witnessed it ever doubted he felt the pain of the suffering, especially children, intensely. John Edwards’ campaign theme of “the two Americas,” one for the rich and one for the poor, was never credited to Bobby but it should have been. In that same KSU speech, Kennedy said, “I have seen these other Americans –- I have seen children in Mississippi starving, I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America. If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must end the disgrace of this other America.”

Thirty-seven years later, Americans looked on in horror as New Orleans drowned and the federal government’s response was less adequate than relief efforts for third world countries. The President’s response amounted to a flyover, a quick photo-op, and his infamous “hell of a job, Brownie” to the incompetent director of the administration’s gutted Federal Emergency Management Agency. As Congressman John Lewis, veteran of the civil rights struggles and Bobby’s campaign often said, “what would Bobby do?”

Barack Obama, the most gifted politician of this generation, truly got it. He credited Bobby with having inspired him. He could quote passages from Bobby’s speeches. One of his favorites was how our GNP failed to measure the things that made life worthwhile:

“Our gross national product counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Once during the campaign, when Obama seemed to falter and trip on his message, I told a friend that he should be more like Bobby; reach into himself and speak from the heart. Obama-Be-Bobby, I said. Sí se puede. John Nolan, Bobby’s scheduler, said what Bobby did “was not really that mystical. All it requires is someone who knows himself and has some courage.” He could have been describing Barack Obama’s campaign.

Bobby: The Final Journey, The Last Goodbye

When the funeral train that was to carry Robert Kennedy’s remains to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. left New York City, an amazing thing happened. People, common people, representing a cultural cross-section of America -– young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian, rich and poor -– lined the railroad tracks, two million strong, to say their solemn goodbyes. Only then, said Theodore White, the presidential historian, “one could grasp what kind of a man he was and what he meant to Americans.”

Ted Kennedy's Eulogy

In his beautiful eulogy for Bobby, Ted Kennedy said:

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

There is no higher purpose for any man or woman than to lead a good and decent life. This is the gift Bobby left us.

Rest in Peace, Bobby. We Will Never Forget You.
[Photographs by Bill Eppridge from his book, A Time it Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties]


drmagoo said...

Thanks, Carlos. I'm not old enough to remember either Kennedy, and while JFK is a larger-than-life figure in American history, his brother is often little more than a footnote. That quote from Teddy has been one of my favorites for a long time.

It is interesting to think about how the last 40 years would have been different with RFK as President instead of Nixon. The right eventually would have had their day, given the cyclical nature of politics, but it would have been different men at a different time, and instead of the frightening legacy of Nixon and W, we may have seen the conservative values that actually are an important part of our national identity be revived.

The parallels to Obama are interesting, despite their strikingly different origins - Bobby was of Camelot and America's First Family, and Obama is, well, not. But the real connections to people and the real understanding of what matters to people are the same. Every time I worry that Obama's misstepping, he gives a speech like the one in Cairo that reminds me of why he inspired so many.

Carlos said...

Although not unanimous, it was fitting that the patriarch of the Kennedys, Ted Kennedy, endorsed Barack Obama. There is a direct lineage between Bobby and Obama that transcends the differences in background. Obama's commitment to a higher purpose in his career and his progressive politics lead directly to Bobby Kennedy. Each in his own time was transformational and inspirational.

Tragically, the events of 1968 so distorted our politics for succeeding elections that the rational conservatism you speak of could not take root in a healthy political environment.

PatEsposisto said...

Thank you for remembering him here and more importantly reminding us of what we can do. Just reading his words brings back a sense of hope and a willingness to struggle even when progress feels doubtful. He didn't stop or cave to naysayers.

A beautiful memorial and, more, a beautiful call to what we can and need to do.

Carlos said...

Thanks, Pat.

David said...

A wonderful homage to one of the truly great men of the twentieth century.

I wept at the Kennedy speeches, no-one would make them today, as the author of The Last Campaign makes clear.

It seems there is room for only one quintessential leader in each of our lifetimes, and mine will be forever Bob Kennedy.

When it seems public service is a forgotten notion, and there is no progress to be made, Bob rebukes us for our self-indulgence:

"We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to
find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others."

Bob, we hardly knew ye.

David, Manchester, United Kingdom.

Carlos said...

Thanks, David

It's nice to know that something I wrote six months ago still reaches and touches those who read it.

The first time I ever set foot in NYC it was to pay my respects to RFK. I was only a teenager then. We were visiting an aunt in VA and I insisted with my mom that it was something I had to do. So they bought a roundtrip bus ticket, gave me some spending money and sent me on my way.

It was an unforgettable, bittersweet emotional day.