Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. He wouldn’t die until the next morning, but he was shot in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen shortly after midnight, shortly after winning the California presidential primary. The hotel no longer stands, but RFK’s legacy sure does.
He died about three weeks before I was born, yet his impact on my perspective and hopefully my mission in this life was cemented long ago. My parents, when I was younger, used to tell me that the night he was shot they were asleep to the radio and woke up in that early morning to the news. The Kennedy family and its stamp on the history that is the 1960’s has always been foundational across my extended family, and in many ways established at a young age my politics and the humanist philosophies that define me today.
RFK – or Bobby as he was affectionally known back then – worked in politics, but unlike many who use politics for personal gain, the roles he played and the service he gave always seemed more like avenues to get the good work done, rather than ends in themselves. There had always been pressure in his family, stemming from his father Joseph P. Kennedy, to be in government. In all likelihood those broader ambitions didn’t have such high-minded principles at their base. But like his brother before him, and in my mind more-so, Bobby envisioned, expressed, and acted upon a vision for humanity that was both inspiring and hopeful, and frankly has rarely been seen again. His reasons for doing what he did and what he tried to achieve were, in a word, more pure.
What RFK Stood For
Bobby was such a complex character that he is often hard to define. Always living in the shadow of his older brother – who incidentally lived in his older brother’s shadow until he was killed in World War 2 – he was driven to succeed and make a name for himself separate from his famous family. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and despite his privilege did so as an enlisted sailor so he could contribute to the American war effort. He never got to make that impact, due to circumstance not choice, and he lamented that in the years after. But he continued to find ways to serve, studying law, becoming a journalist, serving as Senate Counsel and eventually – not ultimately – as his brother’s Attorney General. It was during this time that RFK began to establish himself as a force in his own right.
“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” – RFK
One of the biggest things that has always drawn me to Bobby is his vision. Despite coming from one of the wealthiest families in the United States, if not the world, his words and actions always stood for those who had far, far less. He worked tirelessly for the common citizen, never once that I can find using his varied positions to enrich himself or those like him. His vision, seeing a world free from poverty and wars of opportunity, one in which all people were guaranteed both human and civil rights, is one that endures, and some may recognize that it has been adopted in spirit as the mission of Leadership Zen.
After his brother’s assassination, Bobby became the unofficial standard bearer of the Kennedy legacy and its vision. He had been a part of it very intimately during the JFK Administration, but I have always held that he really brought it to life in the years following his brother’s assassination in ’63. Even when his disagreements with President Johnson reached a pinnacle, somewhere around ’64, he continued his service in the U.S. Senate, standing for his principles and even standing against our commitment in the Vietnam War – which is interesting because the first real ground troop commitments were approved by his brother, only escalated by LBJ. Today, in certain corners of the American spectrum, that would be considered un-patriotic, but Kennedy understood the quagmire that Vietnam would become before it became one. He also presaged the impact the war would have on the fabric of our society and our values, and how it would scar an entire generation. He never once criticized the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine in service, and in fact it was them he often thought of. Unlike today, he also wasn’t strongly criticized as “not supporting the troops” because he didn’t support the purpose of our involvement or our strategy for bringing peace to Southeast Asia. Bobby was transcendent that way.
Why Losing RFK Should Mean Something Today
The 1960s were a turbulent time in America. We lost a lot of good leaders during that time, and many historians have labeled it an era of lost innocence. That innocence, sense of hope and American possibility had driven our nation for nearly 200 years at that point, and suddenly it was just – gone. Today we live in a world where we think greed is good (look at the growing disparity in wealth), where we go to war because we can (17 years in Afghanistan, enduring presence in Iraq), and where the rights of people who don’t look or think like us are under siege. And it all just seems so…normal. Bobby wouldn’t have approved.
“One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time.” – RFK
But what’s more he would have fought against it, in whatever role he had, to make sure that you and I, whether we had are had not, could succeed in America. He embodied – and emboldened – an entire generation to do the right thing. And he did it because it was the right thing to do, not because he gained either politically or financially. He was humble yet aggressive in his beliefs, flexible but unwavering on his principles, human even when his privilege could have made him otherwise. Yes, we was a Catholic and apparently the values of his faith formed a part of his foundation more than the dogma of it. His vision though, was more humanist, requiring that everyone rely on their own innate talents to drive for a better world for all. That we have an ethical responsibility to others because we are humans, not because we belong to a certain sector of humanity. I think we miss that today.
When Bobby died, we lost, in my opinion, the last of our great leaders. There is a reason why the 2nd, 6th, 8th and 10th ranked presidents came from that post-WW2 era and ended in the 1960s. Even LBJ gets a nod at 13. It’s because they had a vision and view of America created in the wake of that conflict that America had a responsibility to lead – politically and militarily and socially and morally. They didn’t think two out of four were good enough. Today, I can’t say that when we put into context what “Make America Great Again” means tens of millions of Americans. Lots of tens of millions.
So thank you Senator Kennedy for your contribution, your vision, your passion, and ultimately your legacy. I personally thank you for the impact you had on my life, and the country thanks you for leaving behind a sense of hope unfulfilled. Here’s hoping that next generation of leaders can be inspired by that, and truly restore this great nation to it’s goodness as well as its perceived prominence. It’s what we all deserve.