What might have beens in American history make for some most fascinating debates. Since the questions themselves are counterfactual, there are no correct answers. And the Kennedy family serves as one of the great subjects of these barstool debates. But, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Kennedy, too much has been made about what might have occurred if RFK had lived beyond that night at the Ambassador Hotel. The more fascinating part of Kennedy’s life and death is the evolution he underwent as a public figure. Kennedy’s s views grew and evolved over time. Something perhaps the rest of us should strive to do instead of doubling down on our fears and misconceptions.
The man who first cut his political teeth by working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, if only for six months, could hardly be labeled a liberal idealist. By serving as chief counsel for the McClellan committee which rooted out union corruption and mob ties, RFK was hardly a romantic. As Attorney General for his brother, and a fierce Cold Warrior, he led the Kennedy administration’s efforts to oust Fidel Castro in Cuba, by whatever means necessary. And, he even agreed to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr., if only to prove to the paranoiac J. Edgar Hoover that King was not a Communist agent. These actions led to RFK being best-known by late 1963 for being ruthless.
Yet, there is no doubt that by the time of his death on June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was not the same man, or politician, he was when he joined McCarthy’s staff or even when he became Attorney General. For one thing, the violent death of a third sibling, and the man he’d dedicated his life to for over a decade, was something that visibly clung to Bobby for the remainder of his life. This pain led him to a new understanding of the suffering of others in America. And thus by the time of his death, he was the leading champion in America for the poor, racial minorities, and the working class, of all races.
Three speeches in particular highlight the transformation and political evolution of Robert Kennedy, and demonstrate why he remains a hero not just within progressive political circles, but for many in the country at-large.
In June of 1966, Kennedy went to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the home of apartheid, a system of racial subjugation every bit as pernicious as the Jim Crow era here in America. In the “Ripple of Hope” speech there, he implored young people to stick to their principles, stay involved, and never despair. “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 which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, on April 4th, 1968, Kennedy was campaigning for president in Indianapolis. Though he was warned by police not to go into the ghetto, and police wouldn’t accompany him, was one of the few major cities (especially in the North) not to riot in the wake of King’s death. Few politicians have ever given a speech that was as emotionally raw, nor as heartfelt as this one. And in it he talks about the polarization of society amongst races, politics, etc. Heartfelt to say the least. Especially knowing the same fate awaited Bobby two months later. “What we need in the United States…is a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black.”
The very next day, Bobby came to the city of Cleveland. The other major northern city not to riot, in part because our African-American mayor walked the streets to ensure calm prevailed. But that day, April 5, 1968, Bobby Kennedy gave what I consider to be the best speech of the 20th century. “The Mindless Menace of Violence” speech was chilling not only it its calls for an end to senseless violence (including in the war in Vietnam) but also for his calling upon people in this country to sacrifice their own fears and remember our own shared humanity.
Countless political figures have sought to recapture the blend of idealistic empathy and the basic demand for fairness that came from RFK in the last few years of his life. Liberals have especially tried to re-enact Kennedy’s themes and emotionalism; from George McGovern to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. Few, if any, have succeeded.
So, why should Robert Kennedy be hailed today? Because the words he spoke in 1966 and 1968 could just as easily be applied today. Because the son of a multi-millionaire didn’t seek the easy path in life, or to defend the desires of those who controlled the economic levers of power, but sacrificed himself politically, and ultimately physically, and asked his countrymen to do the same. Because the man who said this, right here in Cleveland, should be saluted: “When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.”