Today would be Robert Francis Kennedy's 90th birthday, November 20th, 2015. Killed at the age of 42, he has been gone now six years longer than he was alive. In the forty-eight years since we've not only seen a rightward lurch in American politics but (of late) the wholesale debasing of our political discourse.
As a U.S. Senator from New York and a presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy had the rhetorical ability to distill complex social ills into coherent moral stands. Whether he was talking about apartheid in South Africa during his trip there in June 1966, breaking a fast with Cesar Chavez in Delano, California, expressing the nation's grief after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, or calling for an end to the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy's words could cut through social boundaries and partisan divides in a way that seems nearly impossible today.
Few politicians these days will quote Aeschylus or Camus, or try to educate the electorate on the crucial problems confronting the nation. Even fewer would attempt to communicate in a way that uplifts and elevates the conversation as opposed to pandering and telling "the folks" what the polls say they want to hear. Kennedy didn't tell people what they wanted to hear, he told them what they needed to hear.
President Obama likes to point out that building giant walls to keep people away from our borders or passing laws barring war refugees is "not who we are." But maybe he's wrong. Maybe that's exactly "who we are." Today we're hearing from the Republican presidential candidates all manner of intelligence-insulting tripe: "Jeb Can Fix It," "Make America Great Again."
This rubbish is why Robert Kennedy's life is still relevant. In his later years the social injustices he saw in American society and elsewhere in the world produced in him a visceral moral outrage that was palpable and real. In today's haggard parlance they'd call it "authenticity." Yet RFK's hue of "authenticity" wasn't manufactured from huddling with consultants and analyzing focus group data.
Ten years ago, in November 2005, there was a tribute to Robert Kennedy in the nation's capital honoring what would have been his 80th birthday. His brother Senator Edward Kennedy, daughter Kerry, and the RFK Center sponsored the event. Noted activists, authors, and politicians spoke about Kennedy's influence on their lives and work.
Those who spoke included a freshman Senator from Illinois, who had served only about ten months in the Senate, named Barack Obama. Others offering their indebtedness to RFK's example included Senators Paul Sarbanes, John Kerry, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as Congressional Representatives John Lewis, Edward Markey, and Dennis Kucinich. At the 80th birthday celebration it was clear that despite having his life cut short, RFK's legacy had a profound and lasting impact on a generation of public figures.
In his final years, Kennedy began to look at American society with a far more critical eye than he showed as a younger man. He believed the nation must stand for something other than consumerism and the pursuit of material wealth.
"Our Gross National Product now soars above $800 billion a year," he said, "but that counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our streets of carnage. It counts the special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of natural wonder to chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and television programs, which glorify violence to sell toys to our children."
He lamented the loss of a higher purpose for America:
"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 does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It 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."
In his final speech, televised nationwide, that concluded just minutes before he was shot, Kennedy told his supporters who packed the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel:
"I do not believe I can be successful without your help and support. I ask this, not for myself, but for the cause and the ideas, which moved you to begin this great popular movement. . . . With you I know we can keep faith with the American need and the American desire for peace and for justice, and for a government dedicated to giving the people mastery over their own affairs and future."
Kennedy's presidential campaign sought allies among farm workers, labor unionists, peace and civil rights activists, young people and college students. These mobilized citizens represented a potential for the long-term organized resistance to racism, economic injustice, and jingoistic nationalism. He showed that democracy works best when it is energized from below.
On March 16, 1968, when Kennedy entered the presidential primary races, his eighty-two day campaign exhibited a selfless patriotism worthy of emulation. Employing the broad themes of racial solidarity and peace in Vietnam, his candidacy became a rallying point for Americans who wished to move the nation in a more egalitarian and compassionate direction.
The meaning of Robert Kennedy's public life will continue to be contested. But on this day that would have been his 90th birthday, his legacy will remain strongly identified with the rejuvenating spirit of grassroots activism.