Robert Kennedy’s warning 50 years after his death


Robert Kennedy’s Warning 50 Years After His Death[1]


June 5, 1968 was my brother Michael’s fifteenth birthday. When I emerged from my bedroom that Wednesday morning, he told me Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot the night before.[2] I was sixteen.

At high school ninety minutes later, as I got what I needed from my locker, the guy at the next locker muttered: “God-d—ed, bloody, f—ing Americans!” I’ve never forgotten the raw emotion of those words or their sweeping unfairness.

It was two months and a day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. RFK had just won the California primary in his campaign to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Now his life hung in the balance. He died, age 42, the next day.

Why, fifty years later, does this matter? The answer is that Kennedy was a bellwether politician like no other. His life continues to inspire, but his life and death together tell us to beware.

One of his biographers, Evan Thomas, a former assistant managing editor of Newsweek, says: “There had not been since Lincoln, nor has there ever been again, a white national politician so embraced by people of color.”[3]

Yet, RFK was the antithesis of the typical politician. Thomas writes that Kennedy “recoiled from the backslapping and insincerity of electioneering… he was terrible on TV. He was too intense, not facile, and the camera caught the haunted look…. His speeches were effective not so much for their words, which, when scripted, were usually bland, or their delivery, which was often flat or awkward, but for something more ineffable: the body language, the aura, the emanations of compassion and understanding that Kennedy conveyed…. His life and bearing showed a willingness to keep on trying while knowing that real answers to hard problems are not easy and may never be found.”[4]

The RFK of 1968 was a politician defined and tempered by tragedy, principally that connected to his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, who’d been assassinated less than five years earlier. That event tortured RFK for a number of reasons. One was guilt. As JFK’s Attorney General, he’d pursued both the Mafia and Fidel Castro with relentless zeal. He was haunted by the fear that one of them “had struck back by killing his brother.”[5] He suffered an extended dark night of the soul, during which he searched for consolation and insight by reading the ancient Greeks and existentialists such as Albert Camus. This journey and search explains who he became.

I admired his distinctiveness and aspiration. A sharp social critic, many of his speeches about apartheid, racism, poverty, and the like are of enduring relevance.

He questioned American priorities and critiqued the U.S. gross national product, which fostered skewed values, including “the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…. napalm and… nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight riots in our cities.”[6]

He wanted people to view the commonwealth through a wider lens and to treat it with what has been called “an ethic of solidarity and mutual responsibility.”[7] The GNP, he concluded, “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”[8]

Of course, Kennedy is now shrouded in the myth of what might have been. But it is far from certain that he would have won his party’s nomination for president, let alone have been elected to the White House. Yet some of the legend that surrounds him is rooted in fact.

When he broke the news of King’s assassination to an outdoor crowd of one thousand souls, mostly African-American, in Indianapolis, he did so in a remarkable speech that has been called “among the greatest in American history.”[9] His extemporaneous remarks were based on notes he’d prepared himself. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man,” he told them, mixing his suffering with theirs, while also differentiating it. He went on to quote from Aeschylus, his “favourite poet”:

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.[10]

It is noteworthy that the line that immediately precedes these words from Agamemnon is this: “He who learns must suffer.”

Kennedy called on the crowd to avoid division and hatred, violence and lawlessness, and to pursue in their place love, wisdom, compassion, and justice.[11] They apparently got the message. That night “The inner cities blew up… riots in 110 cities (but not in Indianapolis).”[12]

Such was the impact of those years that I studied American history when I got to university. I was struck by what a literary historian referred to as “the sustained American aversion for tragedy.”[13] Decades earlier, commenting on the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, another author argued: “America has always taken tragedy lightly. Too busy to stop the activity of their twenty-million-horse-power society, Americans ignore tragic motives…”[14]

I suspect Tim Russert, the affable former host of Meet the Press, was influenced by this tradition when, shortly before his death, he laughingly dismissed the idea that RFK “grew” as a person. Although the Afro-Americans of Indianapolis got RFK’s message in April 1968, I suspect as well that the United States as a whole—in the aftermath of the 1960s’ assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, and other misadventures up to and beyond Iraq and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction—continues to struggle with its aversion to tragedy and with the opportunity to learn and grow from the lessons of its history.

But this isn’t just about the United States.

“A people needs defeat just as an individual needs suffering and misfortune: they compel the deepening of the inner life and generate a spiritual upsurge.”[15] So wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

My sense of RFK is that he would warn us against the gulag of questionable progress, of progress that is facile and slippery rather than genuine, wide, deep, and holistic, of seeing too narrowly, and of being insufficiently attentive to the needs of the planet and its diverse inhabitants. The title of one of his books, after all, is To Seek a Newer World—a world dedicated to solidarity, mutual responsibility, and minimizing tragedy.


POSTSCRIPT – In the April 9, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb, a Columbia University journalism professor, observed: “Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters. 1968, a leap year, brought the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the student protests at Columbia University, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the bedlam of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the emergence of George Wallace as an avatar of white-resentment politics, and the triumph of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. That’s a great deal of history, even adjusting for the extra day in February.”

Referencing “the singularity of 1968,” he added: “We have not, in the past half century, had a year freighted with such emotional and historical heft, in part because we have not seen the convergence of so many defining issues—war, civil rights, populism, political realignment—in so short a timespan.”[16]

During the years and decades that followed, I looked back and saw in the aftermath of these events a comparative dissipation of positive energy, a seeming reversal in motion. But this was more patina than it was enduring reality. Aspiration and hope had taken some pretty big hits, but they’d hardly been destroyed. It’s just that in the checkered reality of light and dark, the dark appeared to be on a sustained winning streak.

But if I widen my lens it’s not hard to find some bright contra-indications. For example, in Canada, that more moderate and less excitable country to the north, the fervor of Trudeaumania followed on the heels of King’s assassination; Pierre Elliott Trudeau won the leadership of the Liberal Party two days after the death of the 39-year old civil rights leader.[17]

If I were to distill a lesson from this interplay of dark and light, it would be similar to what Evan Thomas said about RFK, namely that he “showed a willingness to keep on trying while knowing that real answers to hard problems are not easy and may never be found”—in other words, to endure and to keep on keeping on while doing so with high purpose.

This notion is underscored by one of the more memorable experiences of my high school years. A direct encounter with the idealism of the ‘60s, it occurred during the autumn of Canada’s centennial year, 1967, a few months prior to the advent and turmoil of 1968. At a special assembly, a young man from Oxfam Canada encouraged students at my school to sign-up for a 26-mile walkathon called Miles for Millions to help eradicate hunger around the world. A new national initiative that lasted more than a decade, it had the support of Prime Minister Lester Pearson. On Saturday, November 25th, my younger brothers and I joined 10,000 others, mostly students, who turned out to circumnavigate a meandering route around the city, raising more than $109,000 in the process.[18]

Although the walkathon was an inspiring success, it was also a long slog requiring more than a little grit and stoicism, not unlike Sisyphus repeatedly pushing his boulder up the hill. But as Camus concluded his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” with the sentence, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” I’d suggest that the Sisyphus in each of us can do this by anticipating an increasing number, and eventually a critical mass, successfully securing their boulders atop the hill, and in so doing building a newer world.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. Successive versions of this essay were first published on the author’s LinkedIn page in June 2018.
  2. Kennedy was shot at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel “about 12:13 A.M., Pacific Time,” according to Jules Witcover’s 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert F. Kennedy (Ace, 1969), 266.
  3. Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life (Touchstone, 2000), 385.
  4. Ibid., 23, 390.
  5. Ibid., 21. Thomas points out on the same page: “For public consumption, Kennedy accepted the finding that JFK was not the victim of a conspiracy, but rather had been killed by a deranged lone gunman.”
  6. – accessed July 16, 2013 and December 21, 2016.
  7. Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, interviewed by Michael Enright and broadcast on CBC Radio’s “The Sunday Edition,” December 18, 2016.
  8. – accessed July 16, 2013 and December 21, 2016.
  9. David Shribman, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Lost for words,” The Globe and Mail, April 7, 2018, O1.
  10. Thomas, 366-367.
  11. Ibid., 367.
  12. Ibid., 368.
  13. R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam (University of Chicago Press, 1968 edition), 71.
  14. The Education of Henry Adams, 416.
  15. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1973), 272.
  16. Jelani Cobb, “Death of a King,” The New Yorker, April 9, 2018, pp. 17-18.
  17. Trudeau was sworn-in as prime minister two weeks later on April 20, 1968.
  18. Email of Feb. 19, 2012, from UBC Professor Tamara Myers to the author. Tamara Myers, “Sole Power,” Canada’s History, Feb. – March 2012, 32-37.
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