Thursday, June 5, 2008

Robert Kennedy Remembered

Forty years ago today, I eagerly woke up and rushed to our kitchen to see who had won the California Democratic primary the day before. I was only nine years old, so I had gone to bed long before the results were known. Yes, I was a political junky even at age nine.

But this was different--this was the first time that I cared about an election. For just one week earlier, my family had been vacationing in San Francisco, and while we were lunch on Fisherman's Wharf Robert Kennedy came on the wharf to shake some hands. My little nine year old hand was one of the hands he shook. That was it. I was hooked. Much to the puzzlement and amusement of my then Republican parents, I cared about nothing except the election. I disparately wanted Robert Kennedy to win.

Of course, as you well know, on that morning of June 5, 1968, my parents had to give me the very sad news that Robert Kennedy had been shot and was not expected to live. I was devastated, but that day began a life long interest in politics and public policy.

I look back on the events of June 1968, and know that my short contact with Robert Kennedy--including, yes, his assassination--was a big reason why I feel the pull of public service. It is why I ran for office in my thirties, why I served in appointed positions in Washington, and why I am eager to serve once again.

Robert Kennedy was my hero. Of course, I now know that Robert Kennedy, like all men, was hardly perfect. Nonetheless, when I think of what I can accomplish in the life that God gave me, I always come back to my favorite Robert Kennedy speech--his speech to students at Cape Horn, Africa on June 6, 1966, which seems particularly apt given the success (thus far) of Barak Obama:

For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, on social class or race -- discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and to the command of our Constitution. Even as my father grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, signs told him that "No Irish Need Apply". Two generations later, President Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic, and the first Catholic, to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation's progress because they were Catholic, or because they were of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in the slums -- untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to our nation and to the human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?

In the last five years we have done more to assure equality to our Negro citizens and to help the deprived, both white and black, than in the hundred years before that time. But much, much more remains to be done.

. . .

"Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation. Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in the isolated villages and the city slums of dozens of countries. Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus 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.

Read it all (or listen to it all) here. Hat tip to Father Peter Carey for the crowd picture.

As we remember RFK today, let's promise to send forth our own tiny ripple of hope.

1 comment:

bls said...

I felt the same way in those days as you did (although I never became a political junkie!).

There's a little YouTube video of him speaking to the crowd on the night of MLK's assassination, here.

All very sad, really, and hard to watch again, at least for me - but also something important to watch and remember.