June 6 is the 45th anniversary of the death of Robert Francis Kennedy. Shot the day before as he claimed victory in the 1968 Democratic primary in California, he remains a lasting influence on the politics of this day.
Clearly a progressive and a liberal by any measure, Robert Kennedy's message transcends political boundaries. Expressed in the vocabulary of humanity, Kennedy's intellectual perspectives can be found in the policy proposals of Reagan as well as Obama. It was Robert Kennedy's concept, for example, that Reagan borrowed to advocate targeted regulatory relief and specialized tax incentives to economically depressed areas. Kennedy called it "operation bootstrap"; Reagan called it enterprise zones, both liked it for the same reason: it confessed faith and confidence in a person's ability to stand on his own if given a fair chance.
There is little doubt that President Obama has obtained his high office twice, in significant part, because of college-age students who see in him the same commitment to honesty and integrity evident in Robert Kennedy. I was one of those RFK volunteers in the Indiana primary in the spring of 1968. While a number of us anticipated a career in politics, RFK's volunteers were anything but party regulars hoping for patronage. The party label, for better or worse, then and today says too little to the questioning heart and mind and soul of skeptical youth.
That was not true of an earlier generation. My late father, Walter Kmiec was an active Democratic Party operative who helped secure John F. Kennedy's narrow margin of victory in Cook County, Illinois in the 1960 presidential race. In authoring a preface for a recent book, Kennedy family friend and mine as well, actor Martin Sheen, reminded me of my description of my late father, Walter, as an 'old-line, Daley Democrat' who took me [as a young boy of 10] on his appointed rounds in the wards and precincts of Chicago."
Dad's politics were machine politics and frankly he was undisturbed when political opponents would assert that the 1960 election was determined by his likes with "cemetery votes." Dad would never concede the point, but one always sensed that there was a certain party argument being made in the alternative; namely, even were it true, it would only be further proof of the resurrection or life after death -- "at least for Democrats," winked my father.
Without remembering the times of protest and cynicism that the 1960s included, some at this distance might view my college age volunteering for Robert Kennedy as simply the apple not falling far from the tree, but the politics of '68 were anything but party politics. At the time he entered the race, RFK had to defeat two Democrats - the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, and Democratic Senator Gene McCarthy who was nominally the first to challenge America's increased involvement in Vietnam. My late father saw this as political suicide, and insofar as the result was the election of Richard Nixon, he had a point. Yet, it was a point that would not be greatly valued by me and my contemporaries since politics were for us from that moment hence, subordinate to the pursuit of principle.
RFK by rhetoric and inspiration was the very embodiment of principle over politics: he spoke of "a newer world" not beset by arbitrary divisions of race and gender and nationality. We listened and accepted RFK as the standard by which American politics would be assessed thereafter. Except in a few rare cases, it would be a standard unmet.
President Obama, I believe, would concede that he does not always meet the RFK standard, even as there is on most matters an overwhelming similarity in their policy direction: ending unjust war; reducing domestic gun violence; caring for the environment; restoring fairness to the economic system; and welcoming the stranger through a family-friendlier immigration reform. RFK would have applauded each and mandatory health care as well. By the same token, thin justifications for clandestine drone practices that results in the killing of innocents abroad and a frustrating failure to meet NRA swagger -- at least so far -- with meaningful curbs on assault weapons, ammunition, and conceal-carry authorizations separate the men. There is also a strange tendency of the President to be naggingly slow in supporting some in and outside his party who have worked the hardest for him. That said, the world was deprived by an assassins hand of even the possibility of an RFK presidency that could assume the task of making the audacious dreams Obama and RFK clearly do share into reality. For that, the President sets his own inspired standard.
RFK, as brother Ted said at his funeral, "need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it." On this bittersweet day of remembrance, it warrants observing that one of the most powerful assets of Barack Obama is his ability to have us answer "Yes we can!"
And why is that of such significance?
Because in making that positive affirmation we are invited by the youth of 1968 and 2013 to answer the observation and question repeatedly put by RFK as to how: "Some men see things as they are and say "Why?" I dream things that never were and say "Why not?"