It disturbs me to see the word hero tossed around almost indiscriminately these days, as it belittles the few individuals truly deserving of the honor. Though I respect many people, some deeply, there are only a few whose words and deeds have led me to attempt, usually with pathetic results, to emulate the examples set by them. One such person is Robert F Kennedy, who was felled by an assassin's bullets late in the night of June 4, 1968, 43 years ago today.
Bobby Kennedy was by no means a perfect man, as has been well-documented by numerous tell-all books and our insatiably gossip hungry media. He was a complex individual, intelligent, introspective, and headstrong, possessed of ego and at times known to be ruthless. But he was also an idealist, a man whose thoughts, and the actions driven by them, evolved through a life that saw devastating personal tragedy. After the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, RFK went through a long dark night of the soul, only to emerge more resolute than ever to devote himself to public service and fight for his deeply held moral convictions, against societal injustice and for the weak and disenfranchised.
Robert Kennedy started his political career working in the office of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who at the time was in the midst of his vile early 1950s anti-Communist witchhunt, which resulted in the destruction of the reputations and livelihoods of dozens of innocent victims. From those ignominious beginnings sprang a career that saw Robert Kennedy champion civil rights, advocate for the poor and marginalized, fight organized crime, and help pull the world back from the very brink of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After his belated entry into the 1968 presidential race, his campaign to win the Democratic nomination gained increasing momentum, culminating with his victory in the California primary on June 4, 1968. Minutes after delivering his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was shot while attempting to exit the building with his entourage. Though an assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was named and convicted, controversy still rages over the tragic sequence of events that transpired that night. Robert Kennedy lingered for two days, and died on June 6, 1968.
Had Kennedy won the nomination, and eventually the presidency, the historical timeline would certainly have been significantly altered, probably beyond all recognition. There would have been no President Nixon, no Watergate scandal, a quicker end to the Vietnam War, and no massacre at Kent State. Without these traumas inflicted on the psyche of the United States, one can only imagine that the arc of history could very well have been much more benign than that which did ultimately become reality. The promise represented by Robert Kennedy cannot be overstated, nor can the tragedy of his loss.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the merits of Sen. Kennedy is to let the man speak for himself. On April 4, 1968, just two months before his own assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. On the evening of the King assassination, Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to address an inner-city audience in the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana. Knowing that his audience would be largely black, and almost certainly unaware of Dr. King's assassination, Kennedy had little time to formulate his thoughts, much less write a polished speech. Without the help of aides or speechwriters, he jotted a few notes to himself on the ride to the site of the rally, and then delivered, almost completely extemporaneously, an eloquent and profoundly emotional speech. No teleprompters, no calculations of political consequences, just intelligent and respectful words delivered from the soul. He didn't speak down to his audience, but addressed them as peers, sharing with them the anguish of having suffered the murder of a loved one. As a result, Indianapolis was one of the few American cities spared vicious riots in the wake of Dr. King's assassination.
Here is the speech Robert Kennedy delivered that night…