Bob Schwartz

Tag: Bobby Kennedy

Bobby Kennedy

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Bobby Kennedy was killed 50 years ago today, in the midst of what might have been a successful campaign for the Democratic nomination and for the presidency in 1968. We don’t know unwritten stories. He was 42 years old.

You will find plenty of perspectives on Bobby Kennedy published today, and in the dozens of books and hundreds of essays written about him and his place in history. I’ve written about him too, but today I find myself with little new to say.

Instead, I’ll quote, as I have before, from a poem he recited on the campaign trail.

The poem is Ulysses (1842), written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Imagine that. A 20th century politician reciting a 19th century poem about a hero who first appeared more than two thousand years earlier. Not just any poem and hero, but an idealistic poem about a hero who reluctantly takes on a mission. Having already sacrificed family life for duty, he can’t help but set out one more time. Leaving the life of ease behind, he fiercely pursues a dream until the end of days.

The language of the poetry may be old-fashioned to the modern ear, but please read it carefully. It remains a timeless description of what drives people to mission and sacrifice, in spite of the lure of comfort and the toll of years. If America needed that—and almost got it—in 1968, we need it now.

…Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

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Bobby Kennedy on the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Lorraine Motel, Memphis, April 4, 1968. The Lorraine is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

And let’s 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. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968

On April 4, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was campaigning in Indiana for the Democratic presidential nomination. Heading to a rally in Indianapolis, he learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. Kennedy attended the rally, but instead of a campaign speech, announced the tragic news to the crowd. Many had not yet heard about it. Kennedy’s speech is now considered one of the greatest in American history.

Two months later, on June 5, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.


Robert F. Kennedy
April 4, 1968
Indianapolis, Indiana

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of you — Could you lower those signs, please? — I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s 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. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

Bobby Kennedy Abides

I’ve written before and frequently about Bobby Kennedy. I’m not the only one.

Last year saw the masterful biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye, which is the current definitive work. This past June, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK by John R. Bohrer.

In just the past week, two more. Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews. And while it is broader than just Bobby, Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell  opens with a chapter about Bobby’s decision to run for President, a chapter called Seizing the Moment.

Why the abiding interest, and why now? In the face of an ever-challenging nation and world, politics was and can still be a rich and complicated weave of strength and weakness, resolve and resignation, pleasure and pain, ideals and pragmatism. Know that once and again soulfulness could and would stare down soullessness, however dark the times. And that it could and would be embodied in the life and work of complicated humane leaders who inspired us. No saints, just good people.

Rather than quote from these books, which should be read, here’s a portion of a poem that Bobby was partial to, and which I’ve recited before. It is the close of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses:

…Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Bernie Sanders as John the Baptist

John the Baptist

The Democratic Party is in trouble. Politically, philosophically, spiritually, demographically. Bernie Sanders won’t save the party or win the presidency. But he is setting the scene for the party’s reform and renewal.

John the Baptist was a terrible candidate to lead a religious revolution. He was a wild-eyed radical who seemed to be crazy. His people skills needed work. But his cause found a much better spokesman and leader, who took it to the next level. And then some.

When you think carefully about the party and its recent Presidents and leaders, you look hard for real radical inspiration. Bill Clinton was affable and politically adept, but his was the politics of radical compromise, to the point of digging a rut in the middle of the road that invited neo-conservative disaster and greed. Barack Obama was genuinely inspirational, and has helped the cause of humane Americanism as much as politics would allow. But circumstances and inclination led him to solid pragmatism.

One problem with pragmatism is that it makes a terrible anthem and cause. Another is that it allows all sorts of accommodations that look to the would-be believer like nothing but surrender.

That’s where Bernie Sanders and John the Baptist come together. When the stakes are high, and the troubles are deep, that’s when you have to invoke big visions. That’s what gets people who have fallen into both practical and spiritual malaise to answer the call and start working for real change.

There are few in the Democratic Party willing or able to do this. Whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the nomination or the election, it is not her. If she wins the nomination but loses the election, the party will do some typical superficial soul searching. If she wins both, she may consolidate her power, and the power of the establishment, but the Congress will be even less effective than it is now.

Either way, it is possible that Bernie Sanders is unleashing something bigger than the Clintons or any tepid self-inquiry the party may pretend to engage in. He may not be heir to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, but he might as well be saying this:

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

When Bernie Sanders is done with this election, another Democratic reformer and revolutionary will come along, and another. At that point, if we are lucky, millions of previously unengaged and disappointed people may come to the party dreaming and asking “why not?” And Bernie, like John the Baptist, will have prevailed.

Joe Biden and the Kennedys: Profiles in Service and Tragedy

Joe Biden

Thinking about Joe Biden’s decision on whether to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Kennedys come to mind. All the brothers.

Like the Kennedys, Biden is Irish-American, with a fanatical sense of public service and family. Like the Kennedys, he is a pragmatic liberal, maybe a bit to the left of that dynasty, but deeply aware of the obligation of those who have much to those who have much less.

(Speaking of the haves, unlike the Kennedys, Biden may be the least wealthy politician ever to emerge from decades of high-profile public service.)

Most of all, like the each of the Kennedy brothers, he has had to struggle with multiple tragedies, each one a reason to choose a different path, each one instead a reason to keep going—because of rather than in spite of.

Not a single person, no matter the party, no matter who they support, would begrudge Biden a decision not to run this time. But—unlike the position taken by those who say running might tarnish his legacy—he would crown his career by demonstrating the idea that what does not kill us can make us stronger, and can make us give more, even when so much has been taken.