Listening to Robert F. Kennedy

Published June 13, 2020

The Atlantic

Fifty-two years ago last Saturday, Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after being declared the winner of the California presidential primary. He was 42 years old.

I was too young to remember his death, but over the years I have become something of a Bobby Kennedy devotee. That might seem strange coming from a lifelong conservative who served in three Republican administrations. So might the fact that I had a picture of Robert and John Kennedy hanging in my office while serving in the George W. Bush White House. But life is more complicated and variegated than political labels allow. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out, too, that Kennedy was not an “orthodox liberal,” in the words of his former aide Jeff Greenfield.)

As I learned about Kennedy, first in high school, then in college and afterward, I found him compelling. His career intrigued me, as a person interested in politics—a campaign manager in a presidential race; a Cabinet member and the closest adviser to his brother, the president; a United States senator from New York; and finally, a presidential candidate in 1968. But his career, while impressive, wasn’t exceptional.

What really drew me to RFK were his human qualities, including his literacy and eloquence—he could quote easily from Shakespeare and Camus; Robert Frost and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Goethe and Archimedes—and his “experiencing nature,” which allowed him to see things in a new light and therefore learn and grow. “He was always in the process of becoming,” in the words of The New Yorker.

Suffering didn’t break or embitter him, but rather deepened him; it made him a more vulnerable and empathetic person. A white man born into wealth and privilege, by the end of his life, Kennedy became a champion of people of color and the underclass. Their pain became, to some degree at least, his pain.

I’ve found myself thinking more and more about Bobby Kennedy, because of the deepening divisions, including the deepening racial divisions, in our nation. Kennedy was a central political figure through much of the 1960s,  a turbulent, angry, and violent time. What characterized America then in many ways characterizes America now. Was there something about Robert Kennedy’s habits of mind and heart, his disposition, that we could use now?

Kennedy had an authentic interest in national dialogue, in hearing from and speaking with those who shared very different views than he did. In the first week of his 1968 campaign, Kennedy delivered remarks on the campus of the University of Alabama—the same college to which, less than five years earlier, Kennedy, as attorney general, had dispatched federal marshals to ensure that two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, could enroll over the objections of Governor George Wallace, who literally stood in the doorway to block their entrance.

In a speech to 9,000 students, Kennedy said, “I have come here because our great nation is troubled, divided as never before in our history; divided by a difficult, costly war abroad and by bitter, destructive crisis at home; divided by our age, by our beliefs, by the color of our skin. I have come here because I seek to join with you in building a better country and a united country. And I come to Alabama because I need your help.”

Kennedy went on to say, “This election will mean nothing if it leaves us, after it is all over, as divided as we were when it began. We have to begin to put our country together again. So I believe that any who seek high office this year must go before all Americans: not just those who agree with them, but also those who disagree; recognizing that it is not just our supporters, not just those who vote for us, but all Americans, who we must lead in the difficult years ahead. And that is why I have come, at the outset of my campaign, not to New York or Chicago or Boston, but here to Alabama.”

He concluded his remarks this way: “For history has placed us all, northerner and southerner, black and white, within a common border and under a common law. All of us, from the wealthiest and most powerful of men to the weakest and hungriest of children, share one precious possession: the name American. So I come to Alabama to ask you to help in the task of national reconciliation.”

Robert Kennedy spoke about racial injustice more often and with more intensity than any other white politician of his era. Although his campaign speeches to black audiences were short, the journalist Theodore White wrote, “the fury and indignation [Kennedy] felt at the condition of blacks in America he spent rather at university campuses or excoriating white audiences for their indifference.”

But Kennedy was also determined to achieve racial understanding. Six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Kennedy traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he spoke about a nation “beset by apprehension and fear, anger and even hatred. It is easy to understand the springs of such passion, even as we know the highest traditions of this country forbid them.”

He went on to say, “It is not written in the stars or ordained by history that we must be a nation torn by strife and teeming with troops and bayonets. It is not inevitable that each day—as I experienced last weekend in Washington—we must hear the constant shriek of sirens or see smoke rising from burning buildings.

“Americans have always believed that if we faced our problems and worked at them they could be resolved. And for the most part, they have been right. Those who now believe we have the power to do justice and to make our streets fit places where men can live and children play in tranquility, are also right.

“The enemies of such an achievement are not the black man or the white man,” he concluded. “The enemies are fear and indifference. They are hatred and, above all, letting momentary passion blind us to a clear and reasoned understanding of the realities of our land.”

One other quality Robert Kennedy spoke movingly about was the need for love and compassion. The most prominent example of this was in what may be Kennedy’s most well-known speech, the extemporaneous one he delivered in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, to a largely black audience hours after King was assassinated.

Kennedy learned that King had died when he landed in Indianapolis. According to RFK: His Words for Our Times, Mayor Richard Lugar felt the event was too dangerous; so did the Indianapolis police chief, Winston Churchill. But Kennedy insisted on going ahead with his remarks, which he delivered from a flatbed truck that served as his platform. Kennedy’s words helped keep Indianapolis peaceful while many other cities burned.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings,” Kennedy said. “He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.”

Kennedy went on to say, “We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.”

He then did what was exceedingly rare for him, which was to refer to his older brother’s assassination. He used his grief to give voice to the grief of black Americans.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with—be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

He went on to say, “But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even 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.’”

“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; a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Near the end of his most personal and vulnerable speech, Kennedy said:

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King—that’s true—but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding—and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, 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.

Kennedy then added this: “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.”

It’s impossible to know if Robert Kennedy would have won the 1968 election and, if he had, how successful a president he would have become. He is a vessel in which his admirers could put their greatest hopes and dreams, without ever having to test them against reality.

We know, too, that soaring rhetoric doesn’t easily translate into action, that implementing change is harder than calling for it, and that idealism eventually collides with the rocks of reality.

But there are other things we know, like: Words matter—and some words, from some people in some stations of life, particularly matter. Anyone who has been touched by the lyrics of a song, or by the words of a book, a poem, a letter from a loved one, knows this.

Words are the means by which we convey deep emotions and longings, knowledge and understanding, hopes and fears. We use them to teach, to warn, and to inspire; to promote harmony and provoke; to defend truth and attack it; to seek justice and attack injustice. Words shape our sensibilities; they are part of the civic and political fabric of a nation.

This year in particular, we are seeing how the words of an American president who knows only conflict, escalation, and dehumanization—who loves to throw matches on dry kindling, to use the vivid imagery of a friend of mine—can inflict grave injury on the nation. America is at an explosive moment, with perhaps the closest parallel being 1968. Which brings me back to Robert Francis Kennedy.

At the end of his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy said, “I think we can end the divisions within the United States. What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. And that what has been going on with the United States over the period of the last three years—the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the divisions, whether it’s been black and white, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or over the war in Vietnam—that we can start to work together again. We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.”

Minutes later he was shot, and hours later he died.

A few days after his assassination, the civil-rights activist Charles Evers wrote that Kennedy had asked him to work on his 1968 campaign. Evers, who worked for the NAACP at the time, told Kennedy he would work for him, but only as a volunteer.

“You can’t pay me,” he said. “You can’t give me a dime or a million. But I do have a price. My price is that, if you win, you don’t forget my people, all the people who are not represented. Do that, and I’ll work for you till hell freezes over.”

“I won’t forget,” Kennedy said softly in reply. “I want to work for all who are not represented. I want to be their president.”

“Where, dear God, is the man to take his place?” Evers asked.

Donald Trump isn’t the kind of person Evers had in mind.

Peter Wehner a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Egan visiting professor at Duke University. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.


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