Tuesday, June 05, 2007

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The anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death comes at a dark moment of intense political polarization, in a nation roiled by an unpopular war characterized by official deceit. Many of Robert Kennedy's words on Vietnam could be dropped into the newspaper today and they would be just as relevant.

It is a time of violence in word and deed. It is a time mortal peril for this country and its institutions, the country and the institutions of which he had a deep knowledge, for which he had a deep commitment. It is a time of mortal peril for the world and its life. His son and namesake knows this--Robert Kennedy, Jr. has been and remains one of our greatest champions of our environment.

1968 was a time of political upheaval as well. In this election year it is well to remember that the revered RFK, if he were a politican today, would be criticized and castigated from one end of the political spectrum to the other, and all over the Internet. He would be charged today, as he was charged then,with opportunism, cynical and self-centered politics, and trading on his name and wealthy family.

Kennedy was himself a polarizing figure, although his words were of reconcilation. That in part was what made him polarizing. His positions on various issues did not satisfy the templates of the left or right. Yet he was the only white politician who had the passionate support and love of many blacks. He was the only political leader who spent time on Indian reservations and tiny Inuit villages as well as southern rural and white West Virgina mountain shanty towns.

He inspired passions for and passions against. People wanted to touch him, and he needed to touch others--he seemed to learn through touch. He learned through children, extending the feelings of a father to compassion for all children.

He grew up in privilege, and his early meetings with black leaders were not warm. Yet by 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot and killed, his widow asked Robert Kennedy to arrange to have his body moved from Memphis to Atlanta. His impromptu speech, passing on the news of King's assassination in a black neighborhood where he happened to be, is one of his most famous.

If we took Robert Kennedy out of time, and dropped him into our own, he would find a different country in many ways. There are nearly twice as many people in the United States. The racial and ethnic composition has changed. In 1968, one parent usually did the earning for the family, the man in most white families, and increasingly the woman in single parent poor black families. Two paycheck families, let alone two parents with five or six jobs between them, were rare.

Politically, the parties were stronger. Democrats had deep organizations in the cities, and industrial unions were strong. But the Democratic party was also coming apart. JFK knew that by leading on civil rights, the Democrats would lose their hold on the solid South. 1968 would see Richard Nixon exploit this. Vietnam was itself tearing younger people like me away from the party. Eugene McCarthy ran within the party, but he was not really of it. Robert Kennedy was, and his candidacy may have kept many young people in the party.

Kennedy's first major speech was just after King's death, and after the violent riots that torched and destroyed significant parts of many cities. In some cities, like Washington, it would be more than a decade before those areas recovered.

I could quote his Vietnam speeches, emphasizing the horror for the victims of war. But Robert Kennedy's life, and a great deal of the promise of America, was ended by an act of violence in June 1968. I remember those hours and days. The primary emotion I felt I later understood as this: loneliness. Robert Kennedy's death made this a very lonely country for me.

Robert Kennedy took on that last political fight, knowing the odds were against him, knowing that violence was in the air. He was a warrior for peace. It is important to remember even as we stand up against the cynical and cowardly violence of the rabid right, that Robert Kennedy's last crusade was this: as he said to a largely black audience in that unwritten speech on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

In his next major speech, in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 4, he said this:

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, this 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 on 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 program to enact.
The question is whether we can find in our midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human 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 all. 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 enobled 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. "