On Robert Kennedy's 80th Birthday - What We Lost
Philip W. Johnston wrote a moving tribute to what we lost in today's Boston Globe. Here's a sample:
Having devoted his adulthood to helping advance his brother's career, he was on his own after 1963. Jack Newfield wrote that it seemed that most of the men around President Kennedy had their own lives cut short after the assassination. They never recovered from that tragedy. In some ways the lone exception was Robert Kennedy, who grew in astonishing ways. His brother's death made him empathic with others who suffered: The tough, single-minded political operative became a public figure who used his celebrity to help us to see the dispossessed and powerless in our country. Kennedy saw his role after 1963 as carrying on the work of his brother. Because JFK's death hurt him so much, he began to read the Greek philosophers to gain insight into the very nature of personal torment. His journey out of the abyss of grief transformed him in fundamental ways. He identified with those who were oppressed. In those years, one could see the pain and grief etched on his face. Martin Luther King Jr. said that suffering is redemptive; Robert Kennedy proved him right.
The only politician on the national stage in recent years to dare talk about poverty in this country has been John Edwards. The rest, including John Kerry, Howard Dean, and others I have supported, have never taken up that mantle. Robert Kennedy was also the only candidate keenly aware that running for office might well cost him his life. He told his friends there were guns between him and the White House. Salon founder David Talbot is working on a new book showing what RFK was finding out about JFK's assassination. Kennedy's initial instinct was that the CIA was responsible. So when RFK ran for office, he knew he may well face the same fate as his brother. Can you name me one politician today who is provably risking his life to make our lives better? That's why so many of us still love, and miss, Bobby Kennedy. He actually cared. He never stopped believing that government could be a force for good.
At the conference this weekend, one of the participants mentioned that right-wing commentator Joe Scarborough attended the Kennedy family's service honoring what would have been the 80th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's birth. As Scarborough wrote on his site,
As with Reagan and Truman, my attraction to Kennedy had more to do with courage than ideology. Like those two presidents, Bobby Kennedy seemed to be moved more by personal convictions than political polls.
That fact was proven In June, 1966 when RFK dared to go to South Africa--a country that was an ally of the United States because of its strong anti-communist stance. For Kennedy, simply opposing the Soviet Union was not reason enough to overlook apartheid. So RFK ignored the advice of presidents, ambassadors and political wise men of his day and instead traveled to South Africa to deliver a speech that would begin a movement that would end apartheid.
Kennedy told South African students not to be discouraged by the wide array of challenges facing our troubled world. For when one person stood up for an ideal, helped out those in need or struck out against injustice, he sent forth a tiny ripple on the water that when combined with the acts of others, created a title wave that could knock down the mightiest walls of oppression.
On that summer day so long ago, Bobby Kennedy taught an oppressed people how to do nothing less than bend history.
Scarborough's comments borrowed the language and imagery from Kennedy's speech, which to this day I believe to be one of the most remarkable speeches ever given by an American politician. Robert Kennedy gave the speech two years to the day before he died from gun shot wounds received in the wee hours of the prior morning. I'm reproducing it here in full because excerpting it simply does not do it justice. I don't usually ask my blog audience to read long material. But this one is so worth it. You'll be quoting from it for the rest of your life. I took the text from this site, where you can also hear the speech online. Without further ado, the full published text - which differs only slightly from the spoken version.
I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
But I am glad to come here to South Africa. I am already enjoying my visit. I am making an effort to meet and exchange views with people from all walks of life, and all segments of South African opinion, including those who represent the views of the government. Today I am glad to meet with the National Union of South African Students. For a decade, NUSAS has stood and worked for the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--principles which embody the collective hopes of men of good will all around the world.
Your work, at home and in international student affairs, has brought great credit to ourselves and to your country. I know the National Student Association in the United States feels a particularly close relationship to NUSAS. And I wish to thank especially Mr. Ian Robertson, who first extended this invitation on behalf of NUSAS, for his kindness to me. It's too bad he can't be with us today.
This is a Day of Affirmation, a celebration of liberty. We stand here in the name of freedom.
At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.
The first element of this individual liberty is the freedom of speech: the right to express and communicate ideas, to set oneself apart from the dumb beasts of field and forest; to recall governments to their duties and obligations; above all, the right to affirm one's membership and allegiance to the body politic--to society--to the men with whom we share our land, our heritage, and our children's future.
Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives. Everything that makes man's life worthwhile--family, work, education, a place to rear one's children and a place to rest one's head--all this depends on decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people. Therefore, the essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer--not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.
And even government by the consent of the governed, as in our own Constitution, must be limited in its power to act against its people; so that there may be no interference with the right to worship, or with the security of the home; no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties by officials high or low; no restrictions on the freedom of men to seek education or work or opportunity of any kind, so that each man may become all he is capable of becoming.
These are the sacred rights of Western society. These were the essential differences between us and Nazi Germany, as they were between Athens and Persia.
They are the essence of our differences with communism today. I am unalterably opposed to communism because it exalts the state over the individual and the family, and because of the lack of freedom of speech, of protest, of religion, and of the press, which is the characteristic of totalitarian states. The way of opposition to communism is not to imitate its dictatorship, but to enlarge individual freedom, in our own countries and all over the globe. There are those in every land who would label as Communist every threat to their privilege. But as I have seen on my travels in all sections of the world, reform is not communism. And the denial of freedom, in whatever name, only strengthens the very communism it claims to oppose.
Many nations have set forth their own definitions and declarations of these rinciples. And there have often been wide and tragic gaps between promise and performance, ideal and reality. Yet the great ideals have constantly recalled us to our duties. And--with painful slowness--we have extended and enlarged the meaning and the practice of freedom for all our people.
For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, social class, or race--discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and command of our Constitution. Even as my father grew up in Boston, signs told him that No Irish Need Apply. Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Catholic to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation's progress because they were Catholic, or of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in slums--untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to the nation and human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?
In the last five years we have done more to assure equality to our Negro citizens, and to help the deprived both white and black, than in the hundred years before. But much more remains to be done.
For there are millions of Negroes untrained for the simplest of jobs, and thousands every day denied their full equal rights under the law; and the violence of the disinherited, the insulted and injured, looms over the streets of Harlem and Watts and South Side Chicago.
But a Negro American trains as an astronaut, one of mankind's first explorers into outer space; another is the chief barrister of the United States government, and dozens sit on the benches of court; and another, Dr. Martin Luther King, is the second man of African descent to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts for social justice between races.
We have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in education, in employment, in housing, but these laws alone cannot overcome the heritage of centuries--of broken families and stunted children, and poverty and degradation and pain.
So the road toward equality of freedom is not easy, and great cost and danger march alongside us. We are committed to peaceful and nonviolent change, and that is important for all to understand--though all change is unsettling. Still, even in the turbulence of protest and struggle is greater hope for the future, as men learn to claim and achieve for themselves the rights formerly petitioned from others.
And most important of all, all the panoply of government power has been committed to the goal of equality before the law, as we are now committing ourselves to the achievement of equal opportunity in fact.
We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because of the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.
We recognize that there are problems and obstacles before the fulfillment of these ideals in the United States, as we recognize that other nations, in Latin America and Asia and Africa, have their own political, economic, and social problems, their unique barriers to the elimination of injustices.
In some, there is concern that change will submerge the rights of a minority, particularly where the minority is of a different race from the majority. We in the United States believe in the protection of minorities; we recognize the contributions they can make and the leadership they can provide; and we do not believe that any people--whether minority, majority, or individual human beings--are "expendable" in the cause of theory or policy. We recognize also that justice between men and nations is imperfect, and that humanity sometimes progresses slowly.
All do not develop in the same manner, or at the same pace. Nations, like men, often march to the beat of different drummers, and the precise solutions of the United States can neither be dictated nor transplanted to others. What is important is that all nations must march toward increasing freedom; toward justice for all; toward a society strong and flexible enough to meet the demands of all its own people, and a world of immense and dizzying change.
In a few hours, the plane that brought me to this country crossed over oceans and countries which have been a crucible of human history. In minutes we traced the migration of men over thousands of years; seconds, the briefest glimpse, and we passed battlefields on which millions of men once struggled and died. We could see no
national boundaries, no vast gulfs or high walls dividing people from people; only nature and the works of man--homes and factories and farms--everywhere reflecting Man's common effort to enrich his life. Everywhere new technology and communications bring men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becoming the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of difference which is at the root of injustice and hate and war. Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ended at river shore, his common humanity enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin.
It is your job, the task of the young people of this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.
Each nation has different obstacles and different goals, shaped by the vagaries of history and of experience. Yet as I talk to young people around the world I am impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future. There is discrimination in New York, the racial inequality of apartheid in South Africa, and serfdom in the mountains of Peru. People starve in the streets of India, a former Prime Minister is summarily executed in the Congo, intellectuals go to jail in Russia, and thousands are slaughtered in Indonesia; wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere in the world. These are differing evils; but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfections of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, the defectiveness of our sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows; they mark the limit of our ability to use knowledge for the well-being of our fellow human beings throughout the world. And therefore they call upon common qualities of conscience and indignation, a shared determination to wipe away the unnecessary sufferings of our fellow human beings at home and around the world.
It is these qualities which make of youth today the only true international community. More than this I think that we could agree on what kind of a world we would all want to build. it would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress--not material welfare as an end in itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would be proud to have built.
Just to the north of here are lands of challenge and opportunity rich in natural resources, land and minerals and people. Yet they are also lands confronted by the greatest odds--overwhelming ignorance, internal tensions and strife, and great obstacles of climate and geography. Many of these nations, as colonies, were oppressed and exploited. Yet they have not estranged themselves from the broad traditions of the West; they are hoping and gambling their progress and stability on the chance that we will meet our responsibilities to help them overcome their poverty.
In the world we would like to build, South Africa could play an outstanding role in that effort. This is without question a preeminent repository of the wealth and knowledge and skill of the continent. Here are the greater part of Africa's research scientists and steel production, most of its reservoirs of coal and electric power. Many South Africans have made major contributions to African technical development and world science; the names of some are known wherever men seek to eliminate the ravages of tropical diseases and pestilence. In your faculties and councils, here in this very audience, are hundreds and thousands of men who could transform the lives of millions for all time to come.
But the help and the leadership of South Africa or the United States cannot be accepted if we--within our own countries or in our relations with others--deny individual integrity, human dignity, and the common humanity of man. If we would lead outside our borders, if we would help those who need our assistance, if we would meet our responsibilities to mankind, we must first, all of us, demolish the borders which history has erected between men within our own nations--barriers of race and religion, social class and ignorance.
Our answer is the world's hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.
This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is a revolutionary world we live in, and thus, as I have said in Latin America and Asia, in Europe and in the United States, it is young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.
"There is," said an Italian philosopher, "nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation, and the road is strewn with many dangers.
First, is the danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills--against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's greatest movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.
"Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in isolated villages and city slums in dozens of countries. Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. 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 centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
"If Athens shall appear great to you," said Pericles, "consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty." That is the source of all greatness in all societies, and it is the key to progress in our time.
The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course, if we would act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feelings of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs--that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems. It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief--forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.
It is this new idealism which is also, I believe, the common heritage of a generation which has learned that while efficiency can lead to the camps at Auschwitz, or the streets of Budapest, only the ideals of humanity and love can climb the hills of the Acropolis.
A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change. Aristotle tells us that "At the Olympic games it is not the finest and the strongest men who are crowned, but they who enter the lists.... So too in the life of the honorable and the good it is they who act rightly who win the prize." I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.
For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged--will ultimately judge himself--on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.
So we part, I to my country and you to remain. We are--if a man of forty can claim that privilege--fellow members of the world's largest younger generation. Each of us have our own work to do. I know at times you must feel very alone with your problems and difficulties. But I want to say how impressed I am with what you stand for and the effort you are making; and I say this not just for myself, but for men and women everywhere. And I hope you will often take heart from the knowledge that you are joined with fellow young people in every land, they struggling with their problems and you with yours, but all joined in a common purpose; that, like the young people of my own country and of every country I have visited, you are all in many ways more closely united to the brothers of your time than to the older generations of any of these nations; and that you are determined to build a better future. President Kennedy was speaking to the young people of America, but beyond them to young people everywhere, when he said that "the energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
And, he added, "With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
Can we dare to indulge our idealism? To follow Bobby's lead and do what we know is right, over what is expedient? To do what is sometimes painful, to fight against the lethargy of comfort? Dare we dream of a fairer world? On the near anniversary's of Bobby's birth and Jack's death (Nov 22nd), I hope somewhere in our country, a future politician is inspired to make the kind of difference that indeed, bends history. As Howard Dean used to remind us, we do have the power. But so few of us ever dare to wield it.
A toast, to Bobby. Lift a glass with me tonight? Get busy tomorrow?