Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968)

“The big threat to America is the way we react to terrorism by throwing away what everybody values about our country–a commitment to human rights. America is a great nation because we are a good nation. When we stop being a good nation, we stop being great.” – Robert F. Kennedy

The quote from Robert Kennedy reminds us just how relevant his thinking was for us today. I still draw upon the spirit of Robert Kennedy who grew so much in compassion and ability as a result of his public service. I recently read Robert Coles, Lives of Moral Leadership, which begins with a story about working with Robert Kennedy to help poor children in the south. It is a good lesson in the challenge of acting morally in a political arena to make positive change on the behalf of people who rarely have a person in a position of power speak for them. To hear his speech at the Cleveland Club, The Mindless Menace of Violence, you can click on the photo above; to hear a youtube tribute to RFK click on his initials.

On the morning of June 5, 1968, millions of Americans woke to the shocking news that New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, after winning the California’s Democratic presidential primary, had been shot. Kennedy – 42 years old – died the next day. CBS News’ senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield, who at the time was a young man on Sen. Kennedy’s campaign staff, shared his memories of RFK’s assassination – now on the 40th anniversary of his death.

When you look back 40 years, there’s always a danger of buying into myth; of romanticizing a time or a prominent figure. But after spending hours looking at old films of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, I’m convinced that what I remembered-and admired-was something very real.

There was, first of all, the campaign itself. Since it was my first glimpse of presidential politics – I was 24 years old, working as a junior speechwriter – I didn’t know then, how remarkable it was. The controlled hysteria of the campaign plane, the size and intensity of the crowds, the sea of hands and faces, and at times near-frenzy.

He had a great sense of humor and apart from playing with his audiences, he would also challenge them. The most enduring memories of his appearances for me is how he would push his listeners into thinking.

When talking to college students about why he opposes draft deferments for college students: “As you stay here and sit here and debate all these questions and talk about the morality of some of these problems of the poor and all of these other difficulties, and then say a person who has the right and the ability because of maybe what his father did or mother did, or place that he happens to live, has the right to go to a college or a university and therefore doesn’t have to be drafted and a poor boy who happens to be black has to be drafted. How you can argue that and state that?”

He was also ready to challenge himself. When he turned against the War in Vietnam, he would always include this: “And when the history is going to be written about this conflict, I’m obviously going to have to take my share of personal responsibility. I happen to think I learned something from that.”

At the heart of Robert Kennedy was a sense of passion, even outrage at conditions he often called “unacceptable.” He was a Democrat who hated welfare, not just for the anger it stirred among taxpayers, but mostly because of what it did to the poor.

It all came to an end in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles. But my last memories are not of that moment – but of the train ride that took his body from New York to Washington – a train ride that stretched for eight hours.

Every time we looked out the window, and saw the countless tens of thousands gathered to say goodbye – kids and Cub scouts and Little leaguers, veterans in their old uniforms, that sense of loss was overwhelming.

People still ask, “what if?” Could he have been nominated, could he have been elected, could he have governed effectively?

We don’t know, can’t know. But did we lose a rare kind of public figure? That I think we do know.

Click here for the full quote of Jeff Greenfield.

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