Thursday, June 5, 2008

Forty Years Ago Today…and Today

It was forty years ago today, on June 5, 1968, that Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic Presidential Primary and was poised to go to the Chicago convention at which he would likely have been named as the candidate of the Democratic Party. Instead Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was nominated to run against Republican Richard Nixon and, in a contest that also featured Independent candidate Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, Nixon won. The rest, as they say, is history.

I was three months shy of turning ten years old when RFK died. I remember hearing about the assassination and I remember wondering, given that it came just a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and not five years after the killing of President Kennedy, if that was just what happened to great men. I remember being very sad.

We can never know what would have happened had Sen. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination. Would he have defeated Nixon? Had he defeated Nixon, there would have been no Watergate and had there been no Watergate there would have been no President Carter and had there been no President Carter there may have been no President Reagan…and so on. But there’s no way to know.

Based on the films I’ve seen of RFK’s speeches, I don’t think you could term him a dynamic speaker. But he sure did have a way with words. His speeches contained some of the most powerful and meaningful prose ever spoken by an American leader.

For example, there are these words from his tribute to John F. Kennedy at the 1964 Democratic National Convention:

I realize that as individuals we can't just look back, that we must look forward. When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:
"When he shall die take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."

And from that same speech:

If we do our duty, if we meet our responsibilities and our obligations, not just as Democrats, but as American citizens in our local cities and towns and farms and our states and in the country as a whole, then this generation of Americans is going to be the best generation in the history of mankind.

Or consider these words from the brief remarks he made in Indianapolis on the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. 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.

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.

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. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

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 poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And 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, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

And then there are these words that RFK spoke on March 16, 1968 as he announced his candidacy for President:

I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.

Finally, consider the words that he spoke at Kansas State University in the first speech of his presidential campaign, words that may speak truth to our present time. Kennedy was talking about Vietnam, but the words might have ramifications for Iraq and for future situations. After acknowledging his role in the early decisions that led the United States into Vietnam, he said,

But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom. Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil." The only sin, he said, is pride.

I know that we tend to idealize the past and the leaders of the past. I know that Robert F. Kennedy was a flawed and frail human being as we all are. I know that the way in which his life ended colors our perception of him. I do not mean to make him into an ideal figure.

But I do think that RFK’s words offer a lesson for our present leaders and presidential candidates. As an uncle of mine is fond of saying, the American people can handle the truth. We need leaders who will tell us the truth. We need leaders who will challenge us to make sacrifices and to ask and to face the hard questions. We need leaders who do not live under the delusion that they are always right and that they will somehow be weakened in our eyes if they admit their mistakes. We need leaders who will challenge us to be moral and to be responsible in our national life and in our international relationships.

I hope that Sens. McClain and Obama will prove to be that kind of leader.

1 comment:

Drew Hill said...

Thank you, Mike, for a stirring reminder of a remarkable leader. I remember that deep, frightened feeling as a boy, "Will this killing ever end?"

Forty years later and RFK's words are as timely as ever. Pray God somebody's listening.