Robert Kennedy recalled, in his own words
Millions of words have been written about Robert F. Kennedy, with tens of thousands more emerging now to mark the 30th anniversary of his assassination. Something about him remains compelling, even for those not yet born at the time of his death.
To express that something is no easy task, and legion is the number of essay and editorial writers who have tried and failed. Perhaps, therefore, it would be best to fall back on the words of Kennedy himself to remind us of a time when calls to honor and courage and our nations most noble ideals didnt yet sound like the setup for Warren Beattys cynical raps in the movie Bulworth.
These excerpts are taken from RFK: Collected Speeches (Viking, 1993).
In his most famous address, Robert Kennedy spoke on June 6, 1966, at the University of Capetown in South Africa. His remarks ostensibly addressed the apartheid system in that nation, but he was clearly mindful of the continuing racial turmoil in the United States:
Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ended at the river shore, his common humanity enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin.
Kennedy also touched on the themes of racial and class healing in his announcement of his candidacy for the presidency on March 16, 1968.
As a member of the cabinet and a member of the Senate, I have seen the inexcusable and ugly deprivation which causes children to starve in Mississippi, black children to riot in Watts, young Indians to commit suicide on their reservations because theyve lacked all hope and feel they have no future, and proud and able-bodied families to wait out their lives in an empty idleness in eastern Kentucky. I have traveled and I have listened to the young people of our nation and felt their anger about the war that they are sent to fight and about the world that they are about to inherit.
Vietnam, and more generally the cause of peace, was the other transcendent issue with which Kennedy was associated. His first major address on the subject took place at Kansas State University two days after his announcement of his candidacy.
I was involved in many of the early decisions of Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path. It may be that effort was doomed from the start; that it was never really possible to bring all the people of South Vietnam under the rule of the successive governments we supported -- governments, one after another, riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed; governments which did not and could not successfully capture and energize the national feeling of their people. If that is the case, as it may well be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.
Perhaps it is romantic nostalgia to see in those words the promise of a man who saw both what was wrong with America and what was right; and who might have done something to end the former and to bolster the latter. Clearly he was a creature of his times. His use of sexist language, for example, will sting the ears of those for whom Kennedy is an avatar of inclusion.
But as he lay dying on the floor of a kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles 30 years ago, his last words reportedly were: Is everyone all right?
National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998