When Bobby Kennedy died forty years ago, I was barely one years old. So I can’t say that I have the same feelings of pain and anguish of the many people who had lived through that horrible time. Bobby became a hero of mine, though, early in my life, along with his brother John and Martin Luther King Jr. They all embodied to my young mind the best of American leaders, fighting the good fight against racism, poverty, and war. As I grew older, I found out they had feet of clay, and I was disappointed especially with JFK’s dalliances and his ambiguous positions on Vietnam.
The more that I read about Bobby, though, the more I grew to admire him. Though he too, had feet of clay, RFK was a lot more passionate about fighting poverty and racism than his brother, more willing to take political risks to stand up for marginalized people and eventually to stop the war in Vietnam. Bobby and Martin remain two of my greatest heroes. Our country lost something special 40 years ago when they died too soon.
One of the things that I most admire about Kennedy was his ability to grow. He was a man of many contradictions. Jules Feiffer did a famous cartoon that showcased the Good Bobby and Bad Bobby: the Good Bobby who was a courageous reformer and civil libertarian; the Bad Bobby who wiretapped and made deals. He went from being a rabid anticommunist who one worked for Joseph McCarthy to a leading antiwar politician of his generation. The young Bobby who did not think much of the problems of African Americans became a strong advocate of African American rights. The rich man of privilege learned to understand the sufferings of the marginalized and would sit with Cesar Chavez in support of migrant workers, would visit Native American tribes and champion their cause.
Kennedy had a reputation for being ruthless. It came in part from doing the dirty work for his older brother’s political campaigns. Bobby also was single minded in his pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt union leader. This toughness complemented the compassion that Kennedy displayed in his later years and helped him to reach out to working class whites and well as African Americans and Hispanics. Margaret Carlson wrote in a Time magazine article in May 9, 1988:
But without the bad and the ugly, the picture is incomplete. If he had not been a hardball player, he would never have entered the presidential primary after Eugene McCarthy had cleared the way. Without his ruthless, hard-nosed side, Bobby might not have been able to put together the coalition he did. Conservative working-class whites may have been willing to help the needy, but fearful of being taken advantage of, they wanted a tough guy in charge. The impetuous young Bobby helped make the grownup Bobby more compassionate.”Some of Kennedy’s strongest critics were from the political Left. His pursuit of corruption in unions and his early association with Joseph McCarthy made many liberals and New Left activists wary of Kennedy’s sincerity. Yet Kennedy consistently confronted his audiences with truths that they otherwise would not have wanted to face. He told whites in Kentucky to get off their porches and clean up abandoned cars in their neighborhood. He criticized wealthy students who received college deferments while poor whites and blacks bore the brunt of the fighting in Vietnam. When asked by a group of medical students who was going to pay for the programs that Kennedy felt must be enacted to help the nations poor, Kennedy gave a simple answer: “You are.” Kennedy reasoned that these medical students, of all people, should know the effects of poverty in crushing people’s health and spirits.
I like Kennedy because of his awkwardness. He was not smooth like his older brother John. From video clips that I’ve seen of him, he always seemed in a perpetual slouch. Bobby seemed like a shy man, with eyes that looked furtively at a person. When he spoke, he always seemed to be talking too fast. As a person who has struggled with shyness most of my life, I relate to him. Kennedy seemed to speak at his best when he was speaking about something that he was deeply passionate about: poverty, the war, reconciling the gap between the races. In some ways he’s like Eleanor Roosevelt, another shy person who was able to fight past insecurities to make courageous stands in the public realm.
Since I didn’t live through the turbulence of the 1960s, I gained my greatest appreciation of RFK through his speeches. In the 1990s, the library had a copy of RFK: The Collected Speeches, and I read it voraciously. Sadly, the library no longer has a copy of the book. I had photocopied some of my favorite speeches though and have read them and reread them. They’ve been like an anchor to me, reminding me of the best of liberalism and America. What most strikes me about these speeches is the challenge Bobby puts on his listeners. He asked Americans to get involved in the problems of society, that these problems of class and race and war are our responsibility to solve. Kennedy said in a speech to Berkeley students on October 22, 1966:
“This is one of the many crossroads at which American life now stands. In the world and at home, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to help make the choices which will determine the greatness of this nation. You are a generation which is coming of age at one of the rarest moments in history- a time when all around us the old order of things is crumbling and a new world society is painfully struggling to take shape. If you shrink from this struggle, and these many difficulties, you will betray the trust which your own position forces upon you.
"You live in the most privileged nation on earth. You are the most privileged citizens of that privileged nation; for you have been given the opportunity to study and learn, to take your place among the tiny minority of the world’s educated men. By coming to this school you have been lifted onto a tiny, sunlit island while all around you lies an ocean of human misery, injustice, violence, and fear. You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasures and gain.
"But history will judge you, and, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow man. In your hands, not with presidents or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfillment to the best qualities of your own spirit.”