Friday, June 6, 2008

40 Years Ago...America Remembers Robert Francis Kennedy

From the New York Times, Friday June 6, 2008 :

"In his brief but extraordinary political career, the 42-year-old, Massachusetts-born Robert Francis Kennedy was Attorney General of the United States under two Presidents and Senator from New York. In those high offices he exerted an enormous influence on the nation's domestic and foreign affairs, first as the closest confidant of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and then, after Mr. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, as the immediate heir to his New Frontier policies.
Despite the deep grief he felt after his brother's assassination, Mr. Kennedy set out to replan his political life. He ran for the Senate from New York in 1964 and defeated his Republican opponent by 800,000 votes in a campaign that demonstrated the visceral appeal he had for voters.
Mr. Kennedy, who entered the 1968 presidential race only after the New Hampshire primary demonstrated voter frustration with the Vietnam war, won primaries in Indiana, Nebraska and California.
It was in the early morning hours after his California win that Mr. Kennedy was shot in a kitchen corridor outside the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had just made his victory speech. He died the next day, June 6, 1968."

Forty years after the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, America still remembers him. His presence and that of his brother seem to have hovered over the campaign of 2008. Early on, almost every candidate running in both parties tried to compare themselves favorably to John F. Kennedy. This only proved the high esteem the American public still have for John F. Kennedy. The politicians know it, and are quick to try and capitalize on it for themselves. Four times since March Hillary Clinton made public (and inadvisable) comments on the murder of Robert Kennedy and how it transformed the 1968 race for the presidency. While pundits argue endlessly over the meaning of Mrs. Clinton's remarks and her intentions, it merely underscored the fact that the abiding spirit of the Kennedy brothers endures and is on the minds of many .The brothers who called America to be better than itself, "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield". The presence of the two Kennedy brothers, both now dead for over four decades seems to cling to America's soul much more tangibly than "Oswald's ghost", the subject of a recent documentary. America still yearns for what might have been, as if the intervening years have been little more than a dark night of the national soul. Almost two generations have come since John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, and yet many who never saw him, and never heard his speeches still hold him in high regard. Robert Kennedy is also held in a very positive light, and this transcends ideology and political party. The building which houses the U.S. Department of Justice is now named after Robert F. Kennedy, and it was a Republican president and his conservative attorney general John Ashcroft who renamed it in his honor. As Ethel Kennedy and his surviving children looked on a Republican president said this of Robert Kennedy in 2001:

"He was not our longest-serving Attorney General; yet none is more fondly remembered. And few have filled their time here with so much energy or seen events of such consequence. He was at his brother's side during the 13 days in October, 1962, where he was firm, and discerning, and calm.
In this building, he set to work on what would become The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here, he gave the orders sending 500 U.S. Marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. He stood for racial desegregation. And to those on the other side of the issue, he said this: "My belief doesn't matter. It's the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That doesn't matter. It is the law"......With us today are some of the people who worked for our 64th Attorney General, each of whom counts it as an experience of a lifetime. They still look up to him. Time has done nothing to weaken their loyalty to the valiant and idealistic man they knew and followed. Robert Kennedy was a serious man, concerned with serious things. And he loved his friends. He was a strong man who understood weakness, a man who knew privilege, but also suffering. He fought to gain power, chose to use it in the defense of the powerless."
RFK remains a misunderstood man to this day. Some conservatives and others view him as a "limousine liberal" who believed in easy handouts and welfare. In fact, he campaigned against welfare in 1968, insisting that work must be substituted for welfare. He knew well that welfare could be a destructive force, but that work restored human dignity.
Barry Goldwater, the lion of American conservatism, was also charmed by RFK though not at first. At first Goldwater saw him as a spoiled rich kid who had not done much on his own. But then he watched Kennedy and his phenomenal work ethic as he pursued a battle against organized crime and its influence in labor unions. The two men became acquainted when RFK went to work for the McClellan committee. Goldwater was filled with admiration as Kennedy began working day and night in the struggle, driving himself as hard as he drove any of his staff. Pierre Salinger later recalled one night in particular as he and Bobby finally left the office at 1 a.m. and both were very weary. But as they passed the headquarters of the Teamsters Union, Bobby saw that the lights were still on in Jimmy Hoffa's office. "If he's still at work, then we ought to be" Bobby declared and so they returned and worked for two more hours. While some called him ruthless, an opportunist, and other names, one cannot deny his selfless dedication which showed forth brightly in 1968, his last campaign, and his last battle. Killed at the pinnacle of victory in the California primary, his funeral was held at St. Patrick's cathedral in New York City. And then began a long slow train ride as his body was carried across America to Washington D.C. Ordinary people of every kind and every color stood in silent tribute as the train rolled by. Paul Fusco, a photographer captured many of them from his perch on the train. Fusco recalled: " Three women are seated at the edge of a crowded platform, two of them holding small babies in their arms . Behind them two others reach out toward the train. A black woman kneels on the dirt, a white purse hanging from her arm, her hands locked in prayer.
A small boy holds his hands flat against the pockets of his shorts.
A woman in dark glasses bites her fingers.
A man on crutches waves one crutch high in the air.
An older woman holds a handkerchief over her mouth.
A mother holds the hands of two children; one of them holds the hand of a third.
Three teenagers salute.
A white-haired man waves his straw hat in farewell.
Some hands hold American flags; others hold wildflowers.
An old man clutches his throat, and some people fold their arms, hiding their hands as if for protection.
A man and a woman wave a big hand-lettered sign: SO-LONG BOBBY.
The train moves on, along the worn silver rails.
So long. So long. So long."

The one they called ruthless had campaigned for love in 1968, and had stated his goal "to make gentle the life of this world". His death was brutal, and provoked a controversy that rages to this day, not unlike the one that still burns over the murder of his brother. While we still seek solutions to these crimes, we also still remember two men from an extraordinary time of turmoil and tension in American politics. And a country that still remembers and longs for a piece of itself, still missing and still missed after so many years.
Youtube has many nice video tributes, here's one that I like:



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