|Robert Kennedy, 1925-1968
||[Aug. 8th, 2008|09:23 pm]
Forty years ago last June 5th, very early in the AM hours, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, brother of President John Kennedy and candidate for President himself, was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. About a day later, he was dead. He deserves to be remembered.
We will never know quite what the Robert Kennedy Administration would have looked like, but if it were anything like how Robert Kennedy talked on the campaign trail, America and the world would both be very different places. Unlike most politicians, I believe that Robert Kennedy meant the things he said, and that he would have acted on them had he been elected. He was a kind of politician who is all too rare, who tells people uncomfortable truths instead of what they want to hear. Hardly anybody, if anyone at all, does that today.
He did not dissemble about the equal necessity for an end to the riots that plagued the 60s and the racial injustice that motivated them. He told college students that by rights they should be off fighting in Vietnam with all the kids who didn't go to college, and that it was morally reprehensible that they were not, particularly if they supported the war. He upbraided people all over the country about the plight of the poorest American citizens, and asked them why they could still allow this to happen, in the twentieth century, in the richest, most powerful country in the world. His basic political philosophy has been summed up as "take your foot off the other guy's throat." It's so simple one would think it was obvious, and yet even to this day millions of people seem all too willing to keep their feet on other peoples' throats, at home and abroad.
The way Kennedy attracted people to his banner was truly extraordinary. He did not merely have the support of the black community; the black community followed him, almost to a man, in the primary season, and his popularity was so great that he was known among blacks as "the blue eyed soul brother." He was so loved by Native Americans that the tribes of the nation gave him an Indian name, "Brave Heart," for all he had done for them as Attorney General and Senator. He was friend with Hispanic civil rights activist and labor organizer Cesar Chavez, and when he passed in a motorcade through Hispanic neighborhoods, he was greeted with cries of "Viva Kennedy!" There is little doubt in my mind that had he been the nominee, all these groups would have come out and voted for him in unprecedented numbers. Yet he did not stop there. Surprisingly, and yet not, he was liked by the "backlash voters." These were a combination of mostly first- and second-generation Eastern European Americans and poor white Southerners from Appalachia who had migrated to the Midwest looking for jobs, who were part of the traditional Democratic coalition, were socially conservative but economically populist, who were disaffected with the way the Democratic Party had been going in recent years, and voted for George Wallace in the Democratic primaries of 64 and 72 and the general election of 68. He also appealed to the ordinary Midwestern farmers of Nebraska, who appreciated his honestly, plain speaking, and Midwestern habits and sense of humor. More than anyone else, I believe, Robert Kennedy had the power to reunite the country in 1968. Even against every lie, slander, and smear that the Nixon campaign would have mustered against him, I have little doubt that Kennedy would have won, quite possibly in a massive landslide.
But it is little use saying, "Robert Kennedy would have won," or "Robert Kennedy would have done this or that," since, to our everlasting loss, he is dead and buried in Arlington National Cemetery these forty years, and he is not about to rise from the grave like Jesus Christ. We can remember, though, who Robert Kennedy was, and what he said and stood for. He was a man who believed that America had an obligation to keep the promises it made, that this is the land of the free and a land of opportunity for all. He believed that we all have a responsibility to do right, and to be prepared to sacrifice for it. He believed in taking our feet off the other peoples' throats, of making sure that the forgotten men and women of this country do not remain forgotten in the ghettos and barrios and impoverished valleys and reservations. He believed that somehow, just maybe, it was possible that the things that unite us all as human beings were greater than those that divide us. I think that's what he believed. It's certainly what I believe, idealistic fool that I am. But as one friend told me recently, after seeing the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Memorial, that I am not the inheritor of my forefathers' and my country's sins, but "the hope of the world." That meant so much to me. We cannot change the past, nor can we fully escape it, but we can, if we try very hard, change ourselves, and a little bit of the future with us. Robert Kennedy tried that, and so will I.
It may not be right to make heroes or saints out of people, and I hope I have not done so. Robert Kennedy was not perfect. He was wrong about Joe McCarthy, he was mostly wrong about Communism, he was wrong about the Vietnam War for years. Yet I believe that he was truly a great man, more than the ruthless opportunist people claimed he was. People said that he was just banking on his brother's name and his father's money, but in my opinion he was even greater than JFK, and if he had wanted to just bank on his father's money, he would have, in his own words, just sat by his pool for the rest of his days. Here is a man who really did things for people, and was prepared to take the heat for it. So I hope that I am not lionizing him too much when I say that he is truly someone worthy of emulation.
Here's Robert Kennedy, in his own words, from a speech he gave in 1968.
“Our gross national product is now over 800 billion dollars. But that GNP, if we judge the country by that, counts air pollution, cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonders. It counts napalm, nuclear weapons, and armored cars for police to fight riots in cities. It counts rifles and knives and television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to children.”
“Yet, the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not count 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 wit nor courage, neither wisdom or learning, neither compassion or devotion to country. It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”