RFK, 35 years later

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(Host) Commentator Peter Gilbert remembers Bobby Kennedy on the 35th anniversary of his death, this Friday.

(Gilbert) Thirty-five years ago on June 6, having just won the crucial Democratic presidential primary in California, Senator Robert F. Kennedy died after having been shot the night before. It was the second assassination in 1968, and the third in five years. It felt as if the nation were coming apart at the seams, and in many ways it was.

He is remembered for his eloquence – for example, his extemporaneous remarks before a crowd at the Indianapolis airport when he heard of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King. He quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus from memory, which is remarkable not only because he was well-read enough to do that, but also because he had the moral and personal depth to do so. He urged that we “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.” Two months later, he, too, would be shot and killed.

His speeches reflected his thoughtfulness, his sense of humanity, and his profound belief in youth, progress, and American idealism. He said, “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 and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

He is remembered for his slender youthfulness, his soft-spoken manner, the way he fiddled with the flaps on his suit jacket pockets, like his brother John had done as well, and the way he lifted his hair off his forehead.

He could be tough – even ruthless – but he was also a man of great empathy. He could be, as Carl Sandburg said of Abraham Lincoln, “hard as rock and as soft as drifting fog.”

Some people do not subscribe to the “great person” theory of history – that history is driven as much by the actions of extraordinary individuals (Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill, Mandella) as by broad social trends (religion, economics, technological development). But I can’t resist imagining what might have been had Bobby lived. The years that followed – the continuing war in Vietnam, American cities in flames, the counterculture, Watergate – these were hard years on America.

His last surviving brother, Edward, eulogized Bobby saying, “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He should 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.”

Thirty-five years after his death, I can’t help but remember Bobby Kennedy’s last public words, “And now, it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” And I grieve not only for him, but for all of us, and for what might have been.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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