Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From the files: RFK (June 2008)

As another chaotic, divisive presidential campaign year cranks up, a look back at how I recalled who and what we lost in another one:

When Robert Francis Kennedy died on this date in 1968, his assassination part of the brutal turbulence of that year and that era, the United States lost more than another layer of its relative innocence. The nation lost a piece of its soul, and it's something we still haven't recovered from, two generations on.

In pursuit of personal causes — from his work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California, to his marching with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Poor People's Campaign, Bobby Kennedy didn't lose his sense of right and wrong, never abandoned the magnetic north of his moral compass.

He was a man in touch not just with contemporary politics but also a man with a deep appreciation for classical expressions, words that despite their age resonated with the human experience. At the 1964 convention, still devastated by his brother’s assassination in Dallas late the year before, Robert Kennedy quoted from Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet":

... and when [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will 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 on the evening of April 4, 1968, announcing the assassination of King to a crowd of black residents of Indianapolis, Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in a speech whose sense of moment and history remains unrivaled:

"He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."

That April evening, “he was taking a physical risk,” said Thurston Clarke, author of “The Last Campaign,” a new study of the 82 days of the RFK campaign. “This was a time when the man was able to demonstrate both physical courage and also the moral courage to speak extemporaneously and to give these people some comfort and hope,” Clarke told MSNBC this week.

The word “hope” is one that echoes in our political history, and shouts loud to a brand new American constituency arrayed to support a new passionate hopeful in pursuit of the American presidency.

◊ ◊ ◊

In those whirlwind 82 days, Kennedy embraced the relentless physicality of American politics, wading into crowds with an abandon that held nothing back. “He could have coasted through a campaign or waited until the field cleared and run in 1972,” writes the Chicago Sun-Times John Barron, reviewing Clarke’s book.

“Instead, RFK jumped into the fray, taking on a sitting president and an unpopular war. That might have been challenge enough for anyone else. But Kennedy spent his campaign trying to go after something deeper. He needed to change America. Quite simply and boldly, he desired the elimination of the chronic poverty he experienced firsthand in the Mississippi Delta and on Indian reservations. He wanted to eradicate the racism that led to riots, assassinations and everyday prejudice. His was a campaign, often laced with poetry, which appealed to people’s better natures.”

Robert Kennedy spoke of an America beyond the narrowness of race and class. Robert Kennedy embodied the great American possible. Whether you were a Latino farm worker or someone in any one of the smoldering inner cities, a skinny 12-year-old black boy in Denver, or a not-quite-seven-year-old biracial boy living in Indonesia, it didn't matter. RFK was your champion, whether you knew who he was and what he meant or not.

As perhaps no American politician before him or since, he recognized the potential of this nation to save itself from its deepest flaws and malignancies, its foundational ability to do the right thing, as well as its awful ability to suddenly, ruthlessly break your heart.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today, in another anniversary of his leaving us, that capacity for heartbreak is recognized again — as well as our opportunity, in the here and now of the 21st century, for furthering the social and political change he ushered forward.

In "Interesting Times," a 2004 collection of essays observing American life and culture, I recalled observing, from television and published news reports from a distance, the power of RFK on the stump in 1968, the ways we were impoverished with his sudden absence, the ways we were — and are — enriched by his life and example:

"Here was a man with eyes a little haunted (for all the obvious reasons), smile broad and uncalculating, a man in the midst of a joyous surrender, pressing the American flesh with a heartfelt passion, tie askew if he wore one at all, sleeves rolled to the elbows, the celebrated Kennedy hair tousled and devil-may-care, the campaigner imparting the incandescence of a rock star in his chart-climbing prime.

"Bobby Kennedy had the ascendant energy, the necessary mystery central to a successful political campaign. He worked the rope line like nobody's business, at least in part because he understood, he knew intuitively that there could be no rope line between him and the country he proposed to lead. Sadly, to our eternal national shame, we will never know how good he really was."

Image credits: RFK top: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. RFK April 1968: via youtube (screenshot from broadcast of unknown network origin. RFK gravesite: Wknight94, republished under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2 and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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