Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Robert F. Kennedy, 1925-1968

First, a confession: For years, I had doubts when it came to Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). Strong doubts. To me, the ambitious younger brother of President John F. Kennedy seemed to be too cunning, too hawkish, too much of hardened cold warrior, too vicious of a political animal. I was not swept away by Bobby Kennedy-mania like so many people I knew. In graduate school, I shared an office with a fellow doctoral student who kept a photograph of RFK above his desk. At the time, I did not understand his love of Kennedy.

As I grow older, though, I've found that my attitude toward Robert Kennedy has changed. Maybe it's because I've lost the self-righteous edge I had my youth -- the black-and-white sense of right and wrong, the inability to come to terms with ambiguities in people. I've also become better informed, having read such gripping accounts of Kennedy's final years as Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America and David Talbot's Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. I have come to appreciate the complexities, ambiguities and multiple facets of Kennedy.

And the more I read about Bobby, the more I'm struck by what a truly remarkable man he was. In the final months of his life, he was undergoing a transformation. He became a deeper thinker, a more compassionate visionary, and an advocate for the forgotten men and women of American society. His was a voice of peace and reconciliation in a relentlessly trying time of American history. When riots erupted in more than 100 cities following the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy urged calmness, compassion and unity.

Speaking in Cleveland the day after King's death, Kennedy said, "Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. We must admit that our children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge."

Two months later, the assassin's bullet ended Kennedy's life, too. And a nation plunged into despair.

His life was much too short. Toward the end of it, a new Robert Kennedy was born. This Kennedy was a humanistic visionary poised to lead America toward something better. He courageously -- fearlessly -- reevaluated his most fundamental beliefs. And along the way, he challenged a generation to live up to America's highest ideals. "One person can make a difference," he insisted, "and all of us ought to try."

Moments before his assassination (which occurred shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968), Kennedy told a cheering audience at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (pictured right), "We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. We can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can."

Forty years later, those words still resonate.

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