I've never been a fan of the Kennedys politically, but I have often admired their style if not their substance. John was in a class by himself, and Ted had a long life, which means that Robert has been caught somewhere in the middle. To be honest, I'd never given a great deal of thought to his impact on history, despite the fact I have clearer (if still limited) memories of his death than I do of John's.
Quite by accident, I happened to stumble onto a website that proved a treasure trove of radio coverage about RFK's assassination and funeral, which I wrote about over at the TV blog. In listening to the broadcasts, and investing some money in the accompanying television broadcasts, I came to a bit more of an appreciation of Bobby Kennedy's style, and some of the convulsive reaction to his death. There is much that is hyperbole about his life and death; for example, I don't think he would have won the Democratic nomination, much less been elected president; Hubert Humphrey was already quite close to the number of delegates needed to win, and RFK's victory over Gene McCarthy in the California primary (which Kennedy had been celebrating when he was shot) was in fact much narrower than it should have been. Many of Kennedy's most astute advisors (Lawrence O'Brien, for example) felt that he never really had a chance of winning. At most, he might have assumed the position that wound up residing with George McGovern, and in that light one can contemplate whether or not Kennedy would have given Richard Nixon a run for his money in 1972.
|Kennedy speaking at the University of Cape Town, 1966|
"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.
[M]any of the world's great 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 32-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; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.
[…] It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus 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. […]
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 for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change. […] I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.
[There is] the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an 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 the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. 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.
These are timeless words, more stunning because of how applicable they are to our times. For as we've experienced the collapse of confidence in government, the contempt (most of it justified) in which politics is seen, the decay of institutions formerly held in esteem, we realize that much that is important in life has been reduced to a bare essential.
There are many ways to, as Kennedy put it, "enter the conflict." It is not necessary for us to do everything, but imperative that we do something. For one man to stand up and fight the machine, whatever that machine happens to be, may seem a futile act; it is when others see and follow that man that change becomes a possibility. But, as Kennedy says, it takes the courage to stand up - despite threats, despite ridicule, despite the loneliness and isolation that often comes from being the first one to stand up.
And the change that will happen, the change that must happen, cannot come from institutions, but must come from people acting together. When I retired from competitive politics I remarked on the single most important lesson I'd learned: you can't change the world by passing a law; you can only change it by converting hearts and minds. And it isn't done in Washington, or in some state capital; it comes in your interactions with your family, your friends and loved ones, your neighbors, your co-workers, those in your wider community. It comes in the church you attend, the organizations to which you belong, the places you spend your spare time. And all the money, all the power, all the prestige in the world doesn't mean a damn otherwise. You can't let the standards of the world determine your definition of success, of happiness, of making a difference.
There is much lamenting within the conservative movement that the culture war is lost, that Hollywood and the media have combined to freeze out the conservative voice. There are those on all sides who decry the corruption of Big Business, of the multimillionaires that often worship at no higher altar than the bottom line; and of Big Government, and those politicians who seek only to preserve their own power and line their own pockets. And here we must exhibit the courage of which Kennedy speaks, to turn away from the wealth and power which the modern world offers, in order to take the road less traveled, one which may contain hardship and heartache but ultimately emerges triumphant.
As I said, this is a remarkable speech, and whether or not RFK was responsible in toto for writing the words, he undoubtedly believed in what they meant. One of Kennedy's contemporaries, Ronald Reagan, was even more gifted at it - unparalleled, in my opinion. Is there anyone today who uses such words to appeal to man's higher nature with an essentially optimistic message? And if not, why not? And what does that say about us?