Remembering Bobby Kennedy

Bobby.  Just the mention of his name, for many, brings back a flood of memories of a person and a time that was filled with unbridled optimism and sadness.

Today is the 45th anniversary of when he was taken from us.  The morning of June 6, 1968 is one I shall never forget.  Even at a young nine years of age, Bobby caught my attention and his death saddened me beyond words.  I was not alone in that regard.  Today, on Morning Joe panelists started their comment with “I was 11 or 14 when he died.”  Dr. Jeffrey Sachs said Bobby was his first political love affair.  The same with me.

The truth is we have not seen the likes of Robert Francis Kennedy since his death.  And that is what makes his loss so painful even 45 years later.  It is not what could have been, but almost certainly what he would have done as president.

Bobby, even for all his greatness, was far from perfect.  When he was Attorney General I feel it is safe to say that his influence went way beyond the job description with respect to covert actions at home and abroad.  It also was no accident that Jack Kennedy wanted his brother in his cabinet.  Bobby was the hatchet man in the administration.  Every president needs one and that is a lesson our current president has yet to learn.

President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis relied heavily on Bobby’s counsel.  It was Robert’s idea to ignore one bellicose communication from Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, and instead respond to the more moderate one.  The younger Kennedy used backdoor communications with the Soviets so it was unmistakable that his message came directly from the president.  Jack and Bobby were a one-two punch that prevented a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.

When Bobby ran for president in 1968, many Kennedy experts feel that he did so with the ghost of his brother weighing heavily on him.  I think it was more than that.  My sense is that he was conflicted between rocking the boat with a challenge to President Johnson and his own inner sense that time waits for no man.  He was always in a hurry to get things done.  Even as a freshman Senator from New York, Bobby disdained the time worn tradition that newly elected senators were better seen than heard.  Keeping quiet is a lesson Ted Cruz needs to take to heart.

One thing is for certain.  During his short run for the president, Bobby came into his own.  You could see it in the final weeks and certainly during his last speech shortly before he was shot.

What separated Robert Kennedy from the others was his ability to speak to the hearts of many people be they young and old, rich and poor, and black or white.  In this regard, I believe he transcended the ability of his brother, Jack.  Bobby evoked raw emotion than where President Kennedy was the consummate statesman.

Younger generations who have no reference point of what a true leader is capable of inspiring only need to Google the speech he gave in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.  One impromptu talk, before a crowd that had no idea Reverend King was dead, prevented that city from rioting and burning to the ground as so many did that fateful night.

Those who have grown up seeing politicians who seek to divide us and offer perfectly scripted, focus group tested sound bites have been conditioned to think small and negatively.  It is no wonder that many Americans hold government in disdain.  I have thought over and over what Bobby would say today.  I think we know the answer to that rhetorical thought.

Those of us who were touched by Bobby will always remember him forever young in our minds — his wry smile, self-depreciating humor, the slightly dishevelled hair, and the mass of people who sought to touch him at every turn.  He was the real deal not just a rock star.

My favorite RFK quote was delivered in a speech he gave in 1966, two years to the day of his death during a visit a visit to South Africa.  He said:

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is 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.” 

Our country desperately needs another leader like Bobby.  I fear for our nation if one does not emerge soon.

Author: Robert Katula

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