Remembering RFK: Why Bobby Kennedy still matters.

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I should begin with a disclaimer; as a teenager Robert F. Kennedy was my hero. I saw a documentary about him when I was sixteen and was hooked. When I graduated from Fullerton High in 1988 it was the week of the 20th anniversary of his assassination. I gave a commencement address and quoted heavily from him. My English teacher who coached me while rehearsing the speech had worked on the 1968 campaign and was in the Ambassador Hotel the night he was killed. As I delivered the speech I saw her in the audience with tears in her eyes. Twenty years later he still affected her. I am sure he still does.

Now it’s been forty-three years since his untimely death and his legacy is still relevant. The country is divided over war, the economy is unstable and the gap between rich and poor has grown even greater. Robert Kennedy represented a bridge between the traditional old liberalism of the Roosevelt era and the New Left that was growing with the younger generation. He was uncomfortable with radicalism and still was very much wedded to the old style party politics that ran the country. He had been his brother’s henchman when necessary and had little toleration for anyone who got in his way. But after the death of the President on November 22, 1963 he began a transformation. His suffering made him more sensitive to the sufferings of others.

By the time he came to California in June of 1968 he was the one white politician in America that African-Americans and other minorities had real hope and expectations for. When he arrived for a campaign appearance in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King was killed he was warned that the audience probably had not heard the news and that violence might erupt (as it did in many cities that night) and that the police escort would not accompany him. Without notes he spoke from the heart and told the stunned crowd the news. Then they listened as he said, “…what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

One quality, for a politician, that made him unique was his willingness to admit fault or mistake. He claimed he had been wrong about Vietnam (and by default was admitting that his brother had been as well). He would be cheered at a University and then tell the audience that he was against college deferment and they would boo him. He would explain that he felt it put the burden of the war on minorities and the poor and they would come around and cheer him again. He didn’t give long-winded meandering answers to reporters’ questions. Once on television he was asked, “Do you think President Johnson is doing everything he can to end the war in Vietnam?” His reply was, “No.” It would be hard to imagine any of our current presidential contenders being that forthright.

Former State Senator (and 60’s radical) Tom Hayden once told a story about going to meet Kennedy with a colleague who brought his son along. Hayden said he always judged people by their attitudes toward children. When they arrived Kennedy offered the little boy a drink which he then immediately spilled. He told the child, “That’s okay. It’s easier for the dog to drink it that way.”

He was a complicated man and was not without his own flaws and demons. But I think he cared about people and their problems and was interested in finding practical solutions over ideological ones. As the late singer/songwriter John Stewart once put it, “I think Bobby should be remembered as the epitome of an American who had everything and cared about people who had nothing.” Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, we could certainly stand to have a few more leaders like him today.

About Ted Tipton