The Kennedy Legacy

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RFK and the Healing Power of Improvisation

On one of the darkest evenings in American history, RFK reminded us of our potential for greatness.

On April 4, 1968 Robert Kennedy made the greatest speech of his life. In paying tribute to the fallen Martin Luther King, he proved that improvisation can trump political calculation.

America is the story of improvisation.

From the ad hoc debates that framed our founding documents, to the native jazz syncopations that power our cultural soundtrack, to the deeply American notion that we all deserve second chances – our national fabric is woven together by motley patches of spontaneous innovation, creativity and reinvention.

It’s no wonder that we cherish the myth that our history’s greatest oration was scribbled furiously on the back of an envelope during a train ride to a Pennsylvania battlefield.

But while Lincoln’s words were more planned and deliberate, the most significant speech of the 20th century was indeed improvised, a spontaneous burst of prose and poetry in the immediate wake of national tragedy. And much as the Gettysburg Address forever redefined the Founders’ promise that “all men are created equal,” Bobby Kennedy’s extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr.—delivered 46 years ago today—can offer a path toward a more just, compassionate second act for our country.

It was the evening of April 4, 1968, and a bitter, black nightfall had descended on one of our nation’s grayest days.

Rejecting the impassioned urging of local officials who feared imminent violence, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ascended the back of a flatbed truck in a vacant lot, surrounded by dilapidated public housing units, in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto. Hair tussled, wearing the old overcoat of his fallen brother, Bobby stepped up to a single microphone before a growingly angry African-American audience that had waited hours in the freezing cold to confirm what many had already heard: that Martin Luther King, Jr.—their Voice—had been permanently silenced. And without notes, speaking directly from his heart, a heart that ached from an unimaginable half-decade of grief—grief for a brother, for a comrade-in-peace, for a nation in turmoil—Robert Kennedy improvised the speech of his life

The speech’s immediate impact is well known: while riots plagued, burned and ravaged 110 American cities that evening, Indianapolis remained calmed by a sober peace.

But Kennedy’s oration also merits a more timeless significance.

His most famous line, reminding the angry audience that his brother too had been felled by a white man’s bullet, were words that only he could have uttered. And only RFK, who had sought the refuge of Greek poetry to cope with his personal grief from the tragedy of Dealey Plaza, would have quoted these same poets in the middle of what would have been a political rally.

But at the core of the speech, you can find universal language: words that could apply to any generation; words that still resonate today:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; 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…We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

As he had done throughout his 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy took the opportunity not simply to pacify the crowd in his immediate purview, but also to share a communitarian message that embraced all Americans.

A divisive selfishness had emerged in the late 1960s that had begun to dominate the body politic. If 1967 had the Summer of Love, 1968 brought America the Season of Hate. The anti-Vietnam cauldron was bubbling over, stoked by the heat of the Tet Offensive and the unprecedented prime-time scalding by America’s Most Trusted Man, Walter Cronkite. The civil rights movement had arrived at a bleaker and angrier phase, punctuated by waves of racial violence in urban areas across the country. And Richard Nixon was honing his cynical, yet powerful, appeal to the nation’s bitter undercurrent of selfish resentment, whose targets he would later label the “silent majority.”

Throughout his campaign, but most poignantly on April 4, Kennedy drew upon Greek ideals and Judeo-Christian principles, reminding Americans that the only way that our nation could flourish was through pursuit of a common good. Sure, there would always be outliers and extremists who provoked dissension and divisiveness to strengthen their own selfish hands. But the vast majority of Americans wanted our leaders to put aside their labels on occasion, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to reach for a common higher ground. On one of the darkest evenings in American history, RFK reminded us of our potential for greatness, if only we ignored the haters and remembered the Golden Rule.

We’ve endured more than 40 years of wandering since hope appeared to have taken its final breaths on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and a few months later, when Bobby himself perished in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. More than 40 years dominated by a bi-partisan politics of self-interest, an involuntary conspiracy among the politicians, industry chieftains, culture vultures, and the media, all battling each other to wrest out their own fleeting piece of power, fifteen minutes of celebrity, or pound of fool’s gold.

For the briefest time, when just as Bobby Kennedy had famously predicted, an African-American had risen to the same seat of power held by his brother, we thought that we may have finally entered a post-partisan, post-racial world.  But it was only after a few months in office—and a loud, angry, tea-flavored strain of self-interested politics had sucked all of the oxygen from the political debate—that most Americans concluded Barack Obama’s powerful message of healing and unity appeared, in retrospect, to be naïve and unattainable.

But as our current leaders continue to slavishly recite the poll- and focus-group-tested sound bites handed to them by their political consultants, it would be wise for them to pause to remember Bobby Kennedy’s improvised moment in 1968. We can continue as a body politic to trade hyper-partisan jabs and appeal to our nation’s most selfish impulses; or we can speak from the heart, without the filter of talking points, and use words that identify and promote a common good—that appeal to our most compassionate instincts, values that are at the heart of both our common religious traditions and the nature of the American experiment itself.

Improvising can certainly be unnerving, especially for politicians who are trained to be risk-averse. But as Bobby Kennedy proved 46 years ago today, we as a nation desperately need leaders who will step out of their comfort zones, and take a leap of faith by trusting the very best of the American people.

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"Jack Kennedy was more the politician, saying things publicly that he privately scoffed at. Robert Kennedy was more himself. Jack gave the impression of decisive leadership, the man with all the answers. Robert seemed more hesitant, less sure he was right, more tentative, more questioning, and completely honest about it. Leadership he showed; but it had a different quality, an off-trail unorthodox quality, to some extent a quality of searching for answers to hard questions in company with his bewildered audience, trying to work things out with their help."

- Robert Kennedy: His Life, by Evan Thomas

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Meet Bobby Kennedy III

Writer and film producer son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his first wife, Emily Black. Brown graduate. 

He likes rock climbing in Tibet; writing films in Italy; possibly Mariah Carey, who attended his 21st birthday party in New York. 

His natural habitat:Riverkeeper benefits; the cutting room, at work on his documentary on Eric Lewis, a musician who has played at the Obama White House. 

Caveat: He favors a fedora.

Photograph by JB Nicholas/Splash News/Corbis

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50 Years After Camelot: A new generation of Kennedys

On Friday’s 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it’s only natural to dwell on how the tragedy affected the nation. But while we remember and pay tribute to the charismatic 35th President half a century later, it is also relevant to assess the Kennedy legacy and look forward. 

The Kennedy family has shaped the politics, news and minds of America. Their power and allure continues with the new generation of Kennedys. JFK’s grandchildren, great nieces and great nephews are making names for themselves in a variety of fields. Read on to learn more about the most recent members of the Kennedy family tree, and why you should expect to see their names in the news. 

Jack Schlossberg: The Heartthrob

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Relation to JFK:
 Jack is the youngest child of JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and her husband, Edwin Schlossberg. 

Claim to Fame: Twenty-year-old Schlossberg has recently received attention for his resemblance to his late uncle John F. Kennedy Jr. JFK’s only grandson graduated from the Collegiate School New York as valedictorian and is currently attending Yale. He also made news as an eighth-grader for co-founding ReLight New York, a project which raised money to provide affordable lighting for low-income housing 

Joe Kennedy III: The Politician

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Relation to JFK: 
Joe is one of the twin sons born to Sheila Rauch and Joe Kennedy II, who is the son of JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy. 

Claim to Fame: This Kennedy is the first politician of the sixth generation. Following in the family business, Joe Kennedy III was elected to Massachusetts’ 4th congressional district in 2012, taking Congressman Barney Frank’s seat. The congressman, 33, serves on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Patrick Shriver Schwarzenegger: The Adorable Entrepreneur

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Relation to JFK:
 Patrick is the firstborn son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Shriver is the daughter of JFK’s sister, Eunice Kennedy. 

Claim to Fame: While you might recognize Patrick from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent scandals,  the 20-year-old has been working hard to make his own name. Patrick started a philanthropic clothing line known as Project 360, which raises awareness about issues like Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Shriver’s son has also done some modeling work. 

Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy: The Hipster

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Relation to JFK:
 Kathleen or “Kick” is the second child of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his first wife, Emily Black. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the second son of JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy Sr. 

Claim to Fame: Many assume that all Kennedys are destined to pursue politics, but “Kick” is one of the first from the family to venture into acting. The 25-year-old landed a role on The Newsroom and has taken method acting classes. “Kick” is also known for keeping it cool in New York City, frequenting pool halls and dive bars. 

Conor Kennedy: The Heartbreaker

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Relation to JFK: Conor Kennedy is the oldest child of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his second wife, Mary Richardson. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the second son of JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy Sr. 

Claim to Fame: Eighteen-year-old Conor soared into headlines when he was romantically linked to relationship connoisseur Taylor Swift.  The pair briefly dated in 2012, splitting after a few months due to distance.

Bobby Kennedy III: The Artist

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Relation to JFK: 
Bobby is the first son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his first wife, Emily Black. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the second son of JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy Sr. 

Claim to Fame: The 26-year-old descendant made news in 2011 for his directorial debut in theater. His one-act comedic play, ELEW: Life from Infinity featured puppets enacting mythical stories about defending your musical high ground. Aside from this venture, Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson is also known for being photographed in fedoras.

Katherine Schwarzenegger: The Author

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Relation to JFK
: Katherine is the oldest child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Shriver is the daughter of JFK’s sister Eunice Kennedy. 

Claim to Fame: In 2010, at 20 years old, Katherine wrote the book Rock What You’ve Got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who’s Been There and Back. The book focuses on Katherine’s own struggles with her body image and provides advice for other young girls dealing with the same insecurities. 

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Bill Eppridge died Oct. 3, 2013. In tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest photojournalists, LIFE.com remembers Eppridge through perhaps the signature moment and picture of his extraordinary career: the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel in June 1968.

How many times must we live through these throat-paralyzing sequences of days of gun play, grief and muffled drums?

That question, posed by LIFE magazine in its June 14, 1968, issue, is freighted with all of the emotions — sorrow, frustration, a kind of bewildered dread — unleashed by the events that unsettled the country in the first half of that schizoid year of 1968. The  assassination of Dr. King; the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre and the other horrors of the war in Vietnam; and, on June 5, the murder of Robert Kennedy by a Jerusalem-born Palestinian Christian, Sirhan Sirhan, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The photographs that Bill Eppridge made before, during and after RFK’s assassination don’t require that we forget all we’ve learned about the dark underside of American politics in order to appreciate the fear, rage and anguish sparked by Robert Kennedy’s death. On the contrary, the pictures in this gallery suggest that despite how ambitious and even cruel he could sometimes be, Bobby Kennedy obviously inspired, in countless people, the better angels of their nature.

(Source: TIME)

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RFK: A ripple of hope

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By Beryl Wajsman

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

~ from Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon”, one of RFK’s favorite quotes he repeated often after the murder of his brother


This past Thursday we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He was shot on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as he was celebrating the California primary victory that would have led him to the Democratic presidential nomination. He died the next day. For many of us who were coming to political maturity in that turbulent time, hope seemed to die with him.

It has been said that my generation was the first to realize a terrible truth before any of us even turned 20. That truth was that the best people we would ever see in public life had their heads blown off. Kennedy, King, Kennedy. For some of us who eventually entered public life, that realization propelled us to anger and activism. For others, constant compromise and conformity driven by fear. 

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, people around the continent said “We still have Bobby.” After Bobby was killed, those who remained engaged in public life comforted ourselves with Bobby’s hope. 

That hope was embodied in many of RFK’s words, but never more so than what he said in the black township of Soweto in South Africa in 1966. “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 centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

But we came to learn that hope, like courage, rests not on the shoulders of any one man but lives in the hearts of all he inspired. All we need is the resolve to remember, and to carry on.

To remember the RFK who dragged a Senate committee to the Mississippi Delta and poignantly touched the stomach and cheek of a starving black child and then glared into a television camera and icily declared “This is unacceptable in America!” To remember another Senate panel he took to California to help Cesar Chavez’ embattled grape workers’ union withstand crackdowns from redneck sheriffs whom Kennedy ordered to “Re-read the Constitution of the United States!” To remember how he brought big business and big labour together to rejuvenate the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant. To remember the hope that he engendered from the hungry of South America to the imprisoned of Africa.

When one reflects on the killing of Bobby one remembers a story that took place in the White House the day John Kennedy was killed. The writer Mary McGrory said on that day that “…we shall never smile again.” Then presidential assistant Daniel Patrick Moynihan answered “No Mary, we will smile again, but we’ll never be young again. You’re not really Irish if you don’t know the world will break your heart some day.” Many of us grew up real quick that bloody spring.

So many today find it fashionable to question what RFK really did in his short public life. Others, members of the salon liberal set Kennedy so disdained, relish condemning him because of his supposed ruthlessness and his alliances with old-time party bosses. But that was the point of Bobby. As religious a man as he was, he hated false piety. And he didn’t endorse litmus tests of purity in politics. His bottom line was who could help him meet the needs of the people. That endeavour, and that endeavour alone, was the redemptive crusade of public life. RFK made us see possibilities in ourselves that we thought unimaginable. If the line he loved from Bernard Shaw meant anything it meant that. “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?”

Robert Kennedy held out an authentic vision of a generosity of spirit that could realize the ancient dream of the brotherhood of man. He challenged us to vigorous service and sacrifice in our daily lives. And most of all, he dared us to be brave. 

Perhaps that is the greatest quality of leadership. To make people bolder, braver, better than they ever thought possible. And he did it by giving people the audacity to hope. While some today talk of change but are in fact merely the products of change, Robert Kennedy was a true agent of change. It was his greatest legacy.

At few times since his murder has the world been in need of such hope and such courage. It is for that reason as much as any perhaps, that his legacy resonates with us still. For we live in a time when too many of our leaders run between the raindrops. They don’t dare to care. And they can no longer tell right from wrong. It is a time of the feckless and the fearful. It is a time of obsequious appeasement of villainy.

Robert Kennedy brought not only courage but clarity to public life. He dared to care. He sailed into the rainstorms. He knew right from wrong. And he knew it because of the simplicity of his public testament that his brother Sen. Edward Kennedy explained so well in his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “My brother,” he said, “need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. [He should be remembered]… as a man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” 

In this sad time there could be no more fitting tribute to Robert Francis Kennedy’s legacy than to remember those words of his brother. And few more important lessons for our own national will.

(Source: themetropolitain.ca)

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RFK: What we lost, what we learned

By Jeff Greenfield

He has been gone longer than he was alive. When he was killed 45 years ago on June 6, just after winning the California presidential primary, Robert Kennedy was 42 years old.

Because I worked on that campaign, I’ve been asked the same questions over and over: Could he have been nominated? Could he have been elected? Could he have made a real difference had he won?

After four decades of brushing the questions aside—“Who knows?”—I tried to answer them in a detailed narrative. If you want one version of how Kennedy might have won in Chicago, how he might have beaten Nixon and what he might have tried to do, you can find it in my “what-if?” book, “Then Everything Changed.” 
    
Of course, it’s just as possible to imagine Kennedy losing the nomination—Hubert Humphrey had most of the big nonprimary states—or losing to Nixon in November. (Maybe in a decade or so,Robert Caro will tell us what LBJ would have tried to do to Bobby.)

For me, the real loss does not lie in the realm of speculation. We know what we lost: The voice and vision of a still-young man with an extraordinary—perhaps unique—understanding of the possibilities and limits of public action.
    
By the time he ran for president, Kennedy had spent almost three years at the very center of power, as attorney general and (much more important) as President John F. Kennedy’s closest confidant. He had learned lessons that few aspirants to the White House ever get to learn: the way “experts” may be ignorant; the way certainties offered to a president may be dead wrong; and the way untested assumptions can lead to disaster.

Some of these lessons came at the cost of humility. John and Robert Kennedy brought no small measure of arrogance to the presidency. The efforts to subvert Castro’s regime in Cuba (possibly including assassination), the embrace of counter-insurgency in Vietnam and the failure to understand how to deal with Congress cost the Kennedy administration heavily. 

The crucial point here is that Robert Kennedy had learned from these mistakes. (One of his favorite quotes, from Aeschylus, says, “God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride.”) At the point when most powerful people are setting out to write their memoirs, he found himself suddenly, violently thrown from power with the death of his brother—which meant that he found himself outside the corridors of power, with full knowledge of what went on inside. It meant, for instance, that he knew that passing a bill and spending money did not necessarily make things better. It meant he understood how structural, institutional weaknesses could undermine good intentions. (My first day on his Senate staff, I went to a hearing on the then-new federal aid to education law. “What is happening with the money?” he wanted to know. Why is it then, he asked, “whenever I go into a ghetto, the two things people hate most are the public welfare system and the public education system?”)

He was, in other words, a public figure challenging orthodox liberalism at the very moment of its postwar peak and raising radical questions about what we were doing for the least of us. Decades before Newt Gingrich suggested that school kids could work (as janitors, of course, since Gingrich was pandering to a very conservative base), Kennedy was suggesting that high school kids might be let out of school a few hours a week to work: to earn money, learn a trade, maybe find an appetite for a profession. That’s why in my alternate history, I imagined him in a major fight with the teachers’ unions.

That’s what we lost: Not necessarily a president, but a 42-year-old man who should have decades more to use what he had learned in helping shape the public policy of his time.

(Source: Yahoo!)

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