Sunday, November 20, 2005

Still Seeking a Newer World

Where have all the great speeches gone? Does anyone even listen to the President's weekly radio address? Does anyone care what Senators say on the floor of the greatest deliberative body in history? Can anyone remember a single speech from last year's campaigns?

There used to be a time when our leaders inspired us, when what they said could ring true deep within us and spur us on to actions that we never thought we could accomplish. Speeches used to be about dreams and visions for a better country, speeches used to be calls to action, not just about taking potshots at the other side. In the world today, we are short on practical idealists.

This is a day to celebrate the life of one such practical idealist. Robert Francis Kennedy would have turned 80 today. Attorney General, Senator, Presidential Candidate, world traveler, inspiration to millions, idealist, protector, husband, father, brother, son. Any number of words can be used to describe the man, but all seem to fall short in one measure or another. History will record Kennedy's last wave to the crowd, his final public words, and that horrifying scene moments later with him lying on the ground bleeding from the gunshot wound to his head. But he could have been so much more, and his words were the kind that called a generation to public service, and he took the nation and the world to task for injustices that he saw.

Among the many speeches he gave during his public life, from his time as Attorney General to the Senate to the 1968 Presidential Campaign, three stand out. One is from Kennedy's trip to South Africa in 1966. The second was given at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968, one of the first days of his campaign. The third in this trilogy of great speeches was delivered on April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger said of the South Africa speech "It was Kennedy’s greatest speech." At Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery, there is a quote from the speech that exemplifies the man's vision of the world: "It is from numberless acts of courage and belief that human history is 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, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." In the home of apartheid, Robert Kennedy was not afraid to take his hosts to task, and his words inspired generations of South Africans who worked tirelessly to sweep down those walls of oppression and helped to create the new, free South Africa that exists today.

The speech at the University of Kansas, titled "Recapturing America’s Moral Vision" by Edwin Guthman, at one time Kennedy's press secretary, is a vision of what America can and should be. "Too much and too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage … But the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play ... It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud that we are Americans." The words come clearly and ring true from a man who did not want to be President of the United States for personal glorification, but to further a mission that he had spent his entire life furthering, the pursuit of justice, goodness, and truth for America and the world at large.

The third speech is from one of the darkest days in American history, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Learning of his death upon landing in Indianapolis, Kennedy went straight to the city's ghetto, where a crowd of mostly African Americans had been waiting for him and had not heard the news. After telling them of King's death, Kennedy, speaking without notes, told the crowd of the deep anguish he felt at his brother's assassination five years earlier. It was a moving, personal moment in a very public campaign, and it was the only time in his life that Robert Kennedy spoke about John Kennedy's death in public. He continued speaking that night: "What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world." The appeal to peace did not go unheeded. While many cities across the country erupted in flames and riots and violence that night, Indianapolis remained quiet. While King, throughout his life a peaceful man, would have hated the violence that followed his death in Detroit and elsewhere, he would have been proud and happy at the calm that Kennedy brought to Indianapolis.

These are just small parts of just three of the speeches that Robert Kennedy gave throughout his tragically short life. He was an inspiration to millions of people around the world, from the young anti-war crowd in the United States, to the discriminated against and the disenfranchised in South Africa. From the old liberals in the northeast, to the migrant workers of the southwest, Robert Kennedy stood as an image of peace and justice. A calming influence, even in the midst of the massive crowds that followed him everywhere he went. Gunned down by an assassin's bullet just after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy's heart would not stop beating until the early hours of June 6. His death left a void in the country, and added to the myth of the Kennedy curse.

Robert Kennedy was a hero, an inspiration, and a leader. The words of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel speak of him to generation after generation, "It is indeed a loss not to have met him."