Posts tagged RFk
Posts tagged RFk
A family celebration: The Kennedys in Hyannis Port at the wedding of Bobby and Cheryl (photo: Denis Reggie).
”Daddy was very funny in church because he would embarrass all of us by singing very loud. Daddy did not have a very good voice. There will be no more football with Daddy, no more sailing with him, no more riding and no more camping with him. But he was the best father their ever was and I would rather have had him for a father for the length of time I did than any other father for a million years.”
- David Kennedy
Exactly 46 years ago today, in the early-morning hours of June 5, 1968, an assassin named Sirhan Sirhan wormed his way into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and shot to death Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had just won the California primary. Dickens’ line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” captured 1968 as well as any words could. So much hope, so much despair.
Months earlier, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and no one addressed his death more movingly than Sen. Kennedy. Hours after the polls closed on June 4, 1968, RFK accepted his victory, making him the undeniable favorite to become the Democratic candidate for president. “And now it’s on to Chicago,” he said to a cheering crowd, “and let’s win there!”
Despite the gravity of the time, music filled our consciousness, with the radio playing such Top 40 chart-climbers as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” And, of course, the Beatles were still together, having just released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Hit movies, such as 2001: A Space Oddysey and the comedy The Odd Couple, played to sold-out crowds.
No one would dispute the fact that Bobby Kennedy appeared on the verge of greatness. President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced months earlier that he would not seek re-election over the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, which Sen. Kennedy opposed. So, in the moments before Sirhan Sirhan fired the fatal shot, it looked as though Sen. Kennedy would run against Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 election, in an eerie parallel to the 1960 race that pitted his brother, President John F. Kennedy, against Nixon, who lost to JFK in one of the closest elections in history.
In June 1968, I was 16 and months away from starting my junior year at W.W. Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove. I had never been to New York City, but there I was, with my dad, as we left our hotel and got into a cab on the streets of Manhattan on the morning of June 5, 1968. Crumpled in the back seat lay a worn, smudged copy of the New York Daily News, with a dying Robert F. Kennedy on the cover. Dad and I stared at each other in shock and disbelief, as the cabbie, his voice choking and tears welling in his eyes, told us what had happened hours earlier in Los Angeles.
It was a bizarre moment of deja vu for me and Dad, since Dallas was our home, the city where President Kennedy had been assassinated less than five years earlier. It was chilling to see the mood of New York City change dramatically from one day to the next. At the time, Robert F. Kennedy was the senator from New York; news of his death sent a hush over the city like nothing I’ve seen.
Even as a 16-year-old, I knew I was living through history and not a pretty history at that. The night before, Dad had taken me to Yankee Stadium, where I got to see an aging Mickey Mantle play in his final season. Mantle went 0-for-4 in a 3-0 Yankees’ loss to the Minnesota Twins. There was almost no one at the game; major league baseball crowds had diminished during the 1968 season, due largely to the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. King months earlier. The announced attendance in cavernous Yankee Stadium that night was 9,131.
You hear people say that life for them was never the same after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and I agree. But for me, it changed even more after 1968. We had seen the three great leaders of the 1960s gunned down before our eyes, and two in one terribly awful year — 1968 — the year that changed America forever.
People clamored to touch him like they did his brother. And he touched back; he held their hands, touched their cheeks, spoke to them in such a direct way—so heart to heart. If you asked him why he did such things, he’d say it was to ‘Save the soul of the country.’ He had more humanity than any of us.
~ Harris Wofford
My first assignment was to photograph Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. The story was to illustrate the point that the young were more interested in politics than ever before because of the men in politics. I spent two days with Bobby. He was so kind, polite and helpful in every way to a young photographer. I worked with him in his Senate office, and then he suggested that we should take a walk outside. At one point he said to me: ” I understand you photographed my brother, Teddy, last week. I said: Yes. He said: “Did you like him”? Yes, I replied. “But did you like him more than you like me?” At the end of the second day he ordered a car to take me to the airport and we were standing on the steps of the Senate when a dog ran out into the middle of the road. Bobby followed him holding up his hands to stop the traffic and escorted the dog across the road to safety. I learned a lesson that day to never pack my cameras away. By doing so I missed a wonderful series of shots.
~ Pat York, photographer, from her book Fame and Frame
Portrait of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, seated in a chair and holding a legal document from the Department of Justice. The American flag and a Roman style mural are in the background (1962)
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.
Bobby campaigning in Indiana, 1968