The 2020 Presidential campaign is underway, and key Democratic aspirants already are testing their themes; meanwhile, many pundits and party faithful are measuring this crop against the standard of a contender who died 50 years ago, before half of today’s Americans were born: Robert Kennedy, whose lightning bolt of a campaign ended with his murder June 6, 1968. While it has become common to ask “who is our next Robert Kennedy?”, from the perspective of someone who has studied his public remarks intently over these decades, I’d urge Democrats to return to the source: RFK’s speeches, filled with political lessons, policy initiatives and inspiring language that are startling relevant. Rather than waiting for a single leader to inherit Kennedy’s mantle, those words and lessons offer all of us, and any candidate, a promising guide for the task ahead.
First, remember that Kennedy’s speeches were infused with the realization that, in a scary world, Americans in any era want tough leaders. His was an authentic toughness, built on a career of going toe to toe with Mafia dons, corrupt union bosses and racist politicians. RFK concluded The Enemy Within recounting those years with a succinct summary of his philosophy: “It seems to me imperative that we reinstill in ourselves the toughness and idealism that guided the nation in the past.” Kennedy jumped at opportunities to engage hostile audiences or confront the comfortable face to face, for (as he said in a speech to students at Berkeley in October, 1966) he was convinced that “the future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideas and great enterprises of American society.” The notion that ideas might be rational contested seems otherworldly today, partly because of a severely partisan media reverberating in an even-more skewed online echo-chamber, and politicians who would rather take endless victory laps in front of screened supporters.
But Kennedy did so in an equally polarized time, and as importantly as championing the necessity of active public debate, he moved beyond easy audiences for another reason. By bringing reporters with him on fact-finding missions to several of America’s poorest areas, among them the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, inner city slums, and Indian reservations, and by graphically recounting those scenes in his speeches, he could connect the stories of the marginalized to the common aspirations for a safe, meaningful life desired by all Americans. That allowed him to redefine his electoral majority, and the nature of the opposition, as he did in Fort Wayne Indiana in April, 1968, less than a week after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered: “Americans have always believed that if we faced our problems and worked at them, they could be resolved… The enemies of such an achievement are not the black man or the white man. The enemies are fear and indifference. They are hatred and, above all, letting momentary passion blind us to a clear and reasoned understanding of the realities of our land.” His politics of head and heart was centered on economic advancement for all Americans, which today reminds us of his success creating a coalition of communities of color and the white working class.
Third, Kennedy’s speeches make clear that material success could not be the primary standard for personal happiness or national greatness. Repeatedly, most powerfully at the University of Kansas on the first full day of his Presidential campaign, RFK rejected a solely GNP-based measure, saying that without “community excellence and community values”, we would be measuring “everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” Kennedy would tell us that our times demand a recommitment to what in a speech at age 33 he was already calling “moral idealism [where] the paramount interest in oneself, for money, for material goods, for security [was] replaced by an interest in one another; an actual, not just a vocal interest in our country.” Today’s popular culture is a torn as RFK’s America was between eying the retail store window (now on our phone screens) and lifting our gaze to more lasting pursuits. It is again time to elevate eyes and aspirations.
And finally, Kennedy’s speeches stand for the proposition that change comes from widespread individual engagement, not the passive acceptance of an anointed leader. This too echoes in our time. Robert Kennedy died championing legislation that would keep firearms out of the hands of the deranged, and while he would be angry at the paralysis on this and other fundamental issues of his time and ours, he would celebrate the students from Parkland and around the country who personify his kind of youth, wielding Kennedy’s trademarks of passion, impatience and commitment. They prove what American history has repeatedly demonstrated, and what the speeches of Robert Kennedy remind us: extreme challenges inspire countless responses — what Kennedy called in an address at the University of Cape Town “ripples of hope”. But the stones that make the splash need not be a crisis or calamity. Indeed, as he counseled students at the University of Mississippi in the Spring of 1966, while “ “it is simple to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and private gain… each of us will ultimately be judged — and will ultimately judge himself — on the extent to which he personally contributed to the life of this nation and to world society of the kind we are trying to build.” The effort must be personal and universal, not dependent on the man on a white horse.
That is why we shouldn’t be waiting for the next Robert Kennedy — he is us, and all around us. And that is why reading his speeches today remains so essential: they provide a crystalline diagnosis of America’s stumbles and a robust vision of its potential to rise. Those who hope to lead us forward should read them as I have: not with nostalgia, but as a catalyst to action.