Recently, I watched the Netflix series Bobby Kennedy for President, a look back at Robert K. Kennedy’s (1925-1968) memorial campaign for the oval office in 1968 that was tragically cut short by his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California on June 5, 1968. The footage is good and the sense of loss from his death is evident from start to finish. His daughter Kerry is the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and a world-renowned activist for social change and instrumental in keeping her father’s legacy alive. And with this recently published masterpiece, his legacy is assured to remain intact for future generations.
The book is not a biography of her father. There are others that have been published for that purpose including the well-respected and widely read Robert Kennedy and His Times, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) The purpose of this book is far different and in fact, it does not include biographical information. The book is a collection of interviews with a wide range of individuals who either knew him or were inspired by him. Quotes from him can be found in between interviews and sometimes in the middle. Also included in the book are photos of Kennedy, some of which may have been rarely seen until the publication of this book. Contained within the pages of this book are some of the best interviews I have ever read. Each speaker reflects on Kennedy but they also explain their own personal story, how Kennedy relates to it and how they intend for society to move forward.
The list of speakers is too long to type here but the first is Harry Belafonte, now in his 90s but still sharp as a tack. His interview is deep, thoughtful and sets the tone for the rest of the book. And with each speaker, the words become even more powerful. Following his tone, we read the words of Bono, Tony Bennett, Alfre Woodward and even former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. One interview that stood out to me among several, is that of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough who until recently, was a registered Republican. His interview highlights Kennedy’s ability to transcend party lines and reach people from all walks of life. Scarborough is candid and he remains an important voice on the state of politics in America.
Author Thurston Clarke provides the foreword and an important question comes us that forms the premise of the book, “what did he have that he could do this to people?”. The question arose as his funeral train made its way to Arlington, Virginia. An estimated two million people lined the train route from New York to Washington, D.C. They came from different political parties and ethnic backgrounds but were united in grief. The question itself is one that America has been trying to answer since his death. In the pages of this book, it becomes clear that he had more than any of us could have imagined. Unfortunately for myself, I never had the opportunity to see him speak in person and have had to settle for his writings and those of others who knew him or decided to write about him. But his quotes and actions throughout his life have served as part the foundation upon which I live my life. Because of him, I have always understood the amount of courage it takes to speak your mind freely for the right cause even if it brings the wrong reaction. He was the first and the only politician I have ever seen walk into the most desolate and impoverished areas in this country. Instead of lip service to constituents, he possessed the drive and empathy to venture where no politician dared. And this point of view is firmly supported by the interviews in this incredible collection of words of wisdom sparked by a man whose main sense of purpose was those around him.
Kennedy’s transformation from Attorney General to Senator and then candidate for President of the United States had not been seen before and has not been seen in America since. In fact, the transformation was so surreal and the heartache so great, that David Halberstam made it the subject of a book, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy. In death, Kennedy has become one of the greatest what if questions we have. What if he had lived and been elected President? I think if he had, I and millions of other people would live in a very different America. Did he have the ability to end all of America’s problems? Not at all, no one does. But he would have set the country on the path it needed to be on. Some of the interviewers stated that they feel that the United States never got over his death. After reading about his life and studying his words, I believe they are correct. His death and that of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) continue to haunt this nation as reminders of the dangers of extremism and the uncomfortable truth that those who dare to speak out and commit to profound change, remain targets for those committed to violence and social upheaval.
This past June, marked fifty years since he died and the passion with which people speak of him, speaks volumes about his life. We shall never see another Bobby Kennedy but what is consoling is that he lives on in the spirit of millions who have taken his messages to heart. Love him or hate him, his impact on America then and now is uncanny.
“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live” – Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy