55 Years After His Death, Robert Kennedy Is Still The Best President We Never Had

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In this first full week of June, I wonder if we might give more than a passing thought to the late Robert F. Kennedy. He was assassinated on Jun 5, 1968 — 55 years ago, in what felt like the final blow of a tumultuous decade that had seen more than its share of gut-wrenching events. And there was still more anguish to come.

My mother woke me from a sound sleep to give me the news. Ours was a very “current events” family. New York’s many newspapers sat untidy about the house. News radio was on each morning, and we always watched the nightly news during dinner, discussing the issues as they bellowed from the 13-inch black-and-white TV on the counter. Well, I didn’t discuss; I just listened to my two older brothers; my father, a WWII veteran; and my mother, a native of Italy whom he brought back to America to be his wife. It was an education.

Awakened by the news that night, I was hit by the grim weight of an America that had entered the decade with great optimism and was now coming apart at the seams. The following morning, one of the New York dailies branded its front page with the headline in 70-point typeface, “Now RFK.” Nothing more needed to be said. I have been a news junkie ever since.

Bobby Kennedy was everything his older brother was and then some, and everything his younger brother never could be. But what has always struck me about Bobby Kennedy wasn’t his promise, the tragedy of losing a brother to an assassin’s bullet or the near-certainty he would win the presidential election in November.

Instead, it was what he did two months earlier, something that stands as a moment in time when political leaders conducted themselves with the kind of wisdom, class, grace and humility that today seems more like a wisp of memory, an errant wish.

That night, April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Kennedy, on the campaign trail, was scheduled that evening to address a crowd assembled for an outdoor rally at 17th and Broadway streets on Indianapolis’ north side.

Kennedy, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, faced a difficult, even dangerous task. His African American audience in this Black neighborhood of Indianapolis was unaware of King’s assassination. Aides worried the crowd would erupt in violence upon learning the news, as was already beginning to happen in cities across America that night. Kennedy had no Secret Service protection. Local police had made clear they lacked the resources to control any major outburst. Aides suggested Kennedy cancel the appearance.

He didn’t. But instead of the rousing stump speech the crowd expected that he had delivered earlier in the day in both South Bend and Muncie, Kennedy broke the bad news in a surprisingly short speech — barely five minutes — simple, honest, compassionate and extraordinary in that the remarks were delivered extemporaneously, with just a few notes Kennedy had scribbled on the back of an envelope only moments before.

“I have some very sad news for all of you,” Kennedy began, “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.”

The wail of the crowd, the raw screams, were painful and palpable, but rather than an escalation of any kind, the cries subsided as people waited for what Kennedy would say next:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. On 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, 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.

There was near total silence now as Kennedy empathetically spoke next of his brother’s death — something he’d never done publicly — and then he quoted from the Greeks. “My favorite poet,” he said, “was Aeschylus. 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.’”

He then asked the audience to return home, to say a prayer for Dr. King’s family and “to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love … 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.”

Perhaps the crowd did just that, for unlike so many other cities that night, violence did not erupt in Indianapolis. Instead, the crowd applauded and went home, surely anguished but without any desire for revenge.

Robert Kennedy campaigning in Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 4, 1968.
Robert Kennedy campaigning in Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 4, 1968.

The speech received little notice; King’s assassination dominated the headlines for days to come. But listening to it years later, it has a lasting resonance. You sense that the audience believed in Kennedy’s leadership qualities. No one doubted the intent of his words. But also evident is Kennedy’s respect for the people in the crowd to speak to them bare, without audience research, focus group analyses and data-mined targeting that guides today’s politicians with carefully crafted manipulative oratory. No political consultant would ever recommend a reference to Aeschylus. Indeed, how many political leaders are even that well-read?

In other words, Kennedy was not told what not to say. Instead, he was armed only with his intellect, thoughtfulness, benevolence and temperament. A statesman. Looking back, I often think Bobby Kennedy was the best president we never had.

Given the quality of presidential candidates from recent scrums and the candidates to come, one wonders if there is a Lincoln, an FDR, a Gandhi or a Churchill in our future. Not to say that these were perfect men or that either John or Bobby Kennedy were perfect men; they weren’t. But they had a gravitas and a grace that seems lost on most, if not all, of our politicians today. Do any of the lawmakers in our current political environment compare to such leadership? Who could deliver that speech today that Bobby Kennedy gave that night? I can’t think of a single lawmaker who could. Maybe Barack Obama.

Most of our best leaders had the resilience to get through troubling times. A true leader does so without malice, pettiness or petulance. They bring a quality of humility and self-reflection, a willingness to learn from mistakes, and an ability to turn failure into success, doing so in a way that evokes and inspires our best values and ideals. Our better angels, as Abraham Lincoln once called it.

The philosophers and statesmen of early Rome repeatedly declared that leaders must be men of great moral clarity. “Esto exemplum aliis.” “Be a pattern to others,” Cicero said, “and then all will go well.” “Noble examples stir us up to noble actions,” Seneca noted.

We have the opposite today. I don’t know if that’s the fault of our political figures or the fault of the voters who put them in office, since we certainly have voters who act as insufferably as the lawmakers they elect.

Sadly, the generation of leaders forged in the cauldrons of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War have passed from the world stage. Their absence makes the current leadership void all the more apparent. Poll after poll confirmed that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump had earned the trust of most voters, be it because of their adultery, lewd comments, lying or what voters thought was a general lack of scruples. And if today’s polling data is to be believed, no love is lost upon the current president or those wishing to replace him. So the serious issues facing our nation and the world — which demand mature, focused leadership — go unaddressed and unresolved.

Does moral leadership matter? What are the consequences of political power without a moral foundation? What does it say about us when those are the kind of leaders we choose, or that we have to choose from?

We get the government we deserve, it is often said. I would amend that: We also get the candidates we deserve. But what about the candidates we need? We lament all the ways our candidates are unworthy of elected office. We declare them to be unworthy of our votes. But are we worthy of anyone who is worthy of elected office? I sometimes think the best people to run for office are smart enough not to. Why bother when knowing society will savage your life, tear you apart, demonize and denigrate you just because you’re the wrong party, the wrong sex, the wrong color — or maybe you’re not religious, or you’re educated in subjects that “can’t get you a job.” Or, perish the thought, the inevitable disagreements over policy issues.

Maybe we lack great leaders because there is something dishonorable required with the expectations of a democratic political process and the media system in which one would have to engage should one seek elected office.

What has happened? Why are there so few great statesmen offering to lead this nation into its future? Or am I waxing nostalgic and wishing for something that never really was?

I have no answers to those questions, and I wouldn’t dare seek them from vapid, repulsive frauds whose only talent is that they are attention whores. But these are questions worth reflecting upon and vital that we all do so. If we can muster even half the maturity, dignity, goodness and courage that Bobby Kennedy did that night 55 years ago, maybe, just maybe, we’ll find the moral character as a people to truly pursue that more perfect union the framers envisioned and make gentle the life of this world.