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Tomorrow is June 6

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968.

For some reason he, more than any other politician (and certainly more than any other Kennedy), strikes a chord with me. Maybe it’s because he was killed a few days before I was born? I honestly can’t say for certain but over the past few years I’ve read, and listened to, a number of his speeches and am deeply moved by how sincere and genuine he was.

He seemed to be the only Kennedy who should have been president. Not because of his brother’s death, his father’s influence or any sort of perceived entitlement. No, mostly because he was the only male Kennedy who never wanted to be president.

RFK listening
RFK listening

Whether it is a still photo of him talking to someone or actual film footage of him, you can see a genuine honesty (something both JFK and Teddy fell short on) and tenderness as he is actively engaged in talking, and listening.

But more than anything you can see in his eyes, and hear in his speeches, something ALL politicians lack today, regardless of party affiliation. Empathy.

I’m neither a Kennedy scholar nor apologist, just a guy who knows that I am overstating the obvious by saying that things may have been a little different today had Bobby Kennedy not been murdered on June 6, 1968.

Of course, no one can prove whether they would be better or worse, but I think we can agree they would most certainly be different.

RFK
RFK

As we recall the 46th remembrance of his murder (anniversary somehow doesn’t fit), two stories stand out for me that speak the character of the man. One, we all know that his brother John F. Kennedy was assassinated traveling in a convertible and despite similar death threats, pleas by the FBI, Secret Service, local police, his wife and family, his confidante’s…well, pretty much everybody, Bobby Kennedy still traveled in an open top car whenever possible.

By all accounts, he didn’t enjoy it but knew it was important to the people. If JFK was the political Elvis, than Bobby Kennedy was the political Beatles…all four of them.

The second story is about his assassination on June 6. According to witnesses, the first question out of his mouth after being shot was “Did anyone else get hit?”

Admittedly, over the years, both Kennedy assassinations have come to define and deify the two men and that can certainly cloud memories. I accept that. But even knowing as little as I do about Bobby Kennedy, there is something that rings absolutely true about him asking if others were shot. And it hits me in the gut every time.

Clearly, he was a flawed man and I suspect even he would admit as much if he could. My guess is he’d say that he was only a lawyer, a human, a husband, a father and a Kennedy, not a God.

There are cynics who will poo-poo the memory of any Kennedy and there are some legitimate arguments to be had about some of the things they did politically, publicly, privately and personally. But if anyone says that either JFK or Bobby Kennedy got what they deserved, that person is small-minded and not looking at the larger canvas of humanity and anything they say afterwards should be treated as suspect.

As Bob Lefsetz recently pointed out “… if you’re not willing to see the other person’s viewpoint, you’re not gonna know much.”

Recently, I watched the 2008 movie Bobby, written and directed by Emilio Estevez. While I can’t say it was a great movie, it was certainly OK. What was great was the Bobby Kennedy speech Estevez chose to close out the film. It was a speech Bobby Kennedy made in Cleveland the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

As the movie cut between the filmed pandemonium in the Ambassador Hotel and actual news footage of the real pandemonium in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel after the shooting, the film’s audio slowly fades as that speech from Cleveland becomes the centerpiece. While not necessarily earth shattering visually or from a sound design perspective, it is exceptionally clever and extremely powerful.

Here is that speech in its entirety. It’s worth reading.

“This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

“Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.”

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own 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.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But 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 in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

– Robert Francis Kennedy
November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968

Even today, no politician could be this raw, this exposed and this powerful. Perhaps more regrettably, no politician would ever have the testicular fortitude to say something like this today.

Sadly, it still needs to be said.