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(I rarely deviate from the MS/disability theme of this blog, but there are some things that are more important than multiple sclerosis. This essay was first posted five years ago, in 2011. Given the current ruinously cantankerous political climate in the United States of America, I believe the words and deeds of Robert Kennedy are more important than ever. With a few changes, perhaps a word or phrase here or there, the speech Kennedy delivers in the video at the end of this post is as relevant today as it was 46 years ago, and should be taken to heart by those of all stripes in this troubled nation of ours. Black or white, conservative or liberal, rich or poor, red state or blue state, Democrat or Republican, we're all in this thing together. For those who receive this via email, the video can be viewed on the Wheelchair Kamikaze website – click here)
I am a man with few heroes.
It disturbs me to see the word hero tossed around indiscriminately these days, as it belittles the few individuals who truly deserve the honor. Though I respect many people, some deeply, there are only a few whose words and deeds have led me to try – usually with pathetic results – to emulate the examples they set. One such person is Robert F Kennedy, who was felled by an assassin's bullets shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, 48 years ago today.
Bobby Kennedy was by no means a perfect man, his shortcomings well-documented by numerous tell-all books and our insatiable gossip hungry media. Back then, there was still, for better or worse (I think for better), a separation between the public and private lives of our political figures. Show me almost any celebrated historical leader and I'll show you skeletons in their closet that today would have ended their careers before greatness could have ever been achieved. RFK was a complex individual; intelligent, introspective and headstrong, possessed of powerful ego and at times known to be ruthless in achieving his political goals. But he was also an idealist, a man whose thoughts and the actions driven by them evolved through a life transformed by devastating personal tragedy. After the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy went through a long dark night of the soul, only to emerge with a deep resolution to further devote himself to public service and fight for his deeply held moral convictions against social injustice and for the weak and disenfranchised.
Robert Kennedy started his political career working in the office of the now justifiably defamed Senator Joseph McCarthy, who at the time was in the midst of his vile early 1950s anti-Communist witchhunt which resulted in the destruction of the reputations and lives of dozens of innocent victims. From those ignominious beginnings sprang a career that saw Robert Kennedy champion civil rights, advocate for the poor and marginalized, fight organized crime, and play an instrumental role in pulling the world back from the very brink of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After his belated entry into the 1968 presidential race, his campaign to win the Democratic nomination gained increasing momentum, culminating with his triumph in the California primary on June 4, 1968. Minutes after delivering his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was shot while attempting to exit the building with his entourage. Though an assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was named and convicted, controversy still rages over the tragic sequence of events that transpired that night. Robert Kennedy lingered for 26 hours, and died at 1:44 AM on June 6, 1968.
Had Kennedy won the nomination and eventually the presidency, our historical timeline would certainly have been significantly altered, perhaps resulting in a future absent much of the social and political upheaval that was to come. There would have been no violence on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention, no President Nixon, no Watergate scandal, a quicker end to the Vietnam War, and no massacre at Kent State. Without these traumas inflicted on the collective psyche of America one can only imagine that the arc of history might very well have been much more benign than the reality that ultimately came to be. The promise represented by Robert Kennedy cannot be overstated, nor can the tragedy of his loss.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the merits of Sen. Kennedy is to let the man speak for himself. On April 4, 1968, just two months before his own assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. On the evening of the King tragedy, Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to address an inner-city crowd in the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana. Knowing that his audience would be largely black and likely unaware of Dr. King's assassination, which had occurred just a short time before, Kennedy had little time to formulate his thoughts much less write a polished speech. Without the help of aides or speechwriters, he jotted a few notes to himself during the ride to the rally, and then delivered an eloquent and profoundly emotional address. No teleprompters, no calculations of political consequences, no prepared text, just intelligent and respectful words delivered from the heart and soul. He didn't speak down to his audience but addressed them as peers, sharing with them the anguish of his too having suffered the murder of a loved one. As a direct result of this speech, Indianapolis was one of the few American cities spared vicious riots in the wake of Dr. King's assassination.
Here is the speech Robert Kennedy delivered that night, from the back of a flatbed truck…
Rest in peace, Bobby Kennedy.