In my son’s bedroom hangs a photograph of Robert Kennedy during what surely is the 1960 campaign. He’s visiting with a group of coal miners, in West Virginia I reckon, and the visual juxtaposition cannot be clearer. To the right is a young, slim Kennedy, in a clean white collared shirt, with his arm on the shoulder of a dirty, grimy miner. They both are grinning while another miner, with what looks like a wad of tobacco in his mouth, looks on. “It’s Okay to Care,” says the caption of the photo, which I bought at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum three decades ago when I was a senior studying journalism at Boston University.
“It’s Okay to Care” was good messaging in 1988 and it seems even more relevant today with a federal government remorseless in its cruelty and run by venal cronies of a narcissistic autocrat. One of the secrets to Kennedy’s enduring popularity half a century after his assassination is the continuing belief among countless Americans that he embodied the values, character, and the capacity for growth that a good president should have. Robert Kennedy, even more than his acclaimed older brother, had proven himself at his sudden end to have the courage and the clarity to be genuinely tough and empathetic.
He didn’t just care (about poverty and racial inequality and migrant workers and Native Americans and gun control, for example), he was able and willing to explain why he cared and why you should care, too. And this wasn’t seen as a political liability, it was seen as a sign of competence and curiosity. “Civic Republicanism,” is how Win McCormack neatly put it. Kennedy’s remarkable life allowed him to frame his political evolution not as a matter of “waffling” or convenience but as a matter of moral and intellectual courage: the strength to change your mind and get it right in the end.
This is what David Margolick meant last week when he wrote that Robert Kennedy “had an astonishing capacity to identify himself with the casualties and victims of our society. When he went among them, these were his children, his scraps of food, his hovels.” It is what Margolick meant when he wrote that Kennedy “acquired his sense of the complexity of things from hard experience. He remained a true believer to the end but at a far deeper level; he had long since shucked away the eternal criteria and the received simplifications and got down as far as one can in politics to the human meaning of things.”
At its premature end, the story of Robert Kennedy then was the story of his well-chronicled journey from “ruthless” campaign manager to ham-handed Senate staffer to a man who was moved to grim silence among the poverty-stricken in Mississippi and then driven to speak out on behalf of the farm workers of California. It was the story of a rich and powerful man who gave his life in pursuit of policies that sounded in equality, justice, and responsibility. It was the story of a man who, as his brother said, ultimately “saw war and tried to stop it.” It was the story of an imperfect man, a flawed politician, struggling to make sense of a senseless world.
By June 1968, Robert Kennedy had shown his fellow Americans the extent of his capacity to learn, to change, to adapt, to feel. He had done so within the crucible of who he was and what he had endured. And he had done so publicly. He may have been a work in progress, even in his final campaign, but he clearly was progressing, which is all any of us can ask of ourselves as we go through life. That restless self-evaluation didn’t just resonate with people who lived through November 22, 1963. It didn’t just resonate with liberals or progressives or Democrats of that era. It resonates today with people, like me, born years after Dallas.
It resonates with me, in particular, not because of the Kennedy myth. I remember vividly in 1988 all the local coverage in Boston leading up to the 20th anniversary of his death. I remember buying into the mystique and the wonderment of it all. So many of his friends and followers and contemporaries were still around then to tell his tale. So many of them are gone today. But an odd thing appears to be happening. The further out we get from June 1968 the easier it is separate the man from the myth. And the further that separation grows, and the more the country splits apart, the better Kennedy looks.
For this we can thank the internet. So many of Kennedy’s speeches, the big ones and the small ones, the short ones and the long ones, can be found online. One doesn’t have to rely on interpretations and analysis and spin from historians or political scientists or Kennedy cronies, one can simply listen to or read what he actually said about the issues we still wrestle with today. And it is the power of those words-- blunt, searing, searching, noble-- that explains why Robert Kennedy today remains a vital political totem. A liberal whom conservatives respected. A rich man the poor trusted. A white man whom people of color could work with.
And here I am not just referring here to his “Ripples of Hope” speech, which Kennedy delivered in Cape Town, South Africa, exactly two years to the day before he died. That speech is arguably one of the finest political speeches in Western history but it was no more powerful or important than Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain. The unforgettable speech came three weeks before Kennedy, campaigning, told an audience at Indiana University about using the blessing of privilege and affluence and knowledge in the cause of helping those who needed it most.
"If we use it just for ourselves... then we can't possibly survive as a society. We can't possibly survive on this planet. Because it can't be accepted; the injustices can't be accepted… I don't mean just going and protesting," Kennedy said. "I don't mean just supporting a candidate for political office. But I mean just becoming actively involved yourselves, that you're going to make a change, make the change in the life maybe of a neighborhood, make the change in the life of some individual, that some individual or group of people are going to live better because you lived, that's the least that we can do."
Those are the words that move people today. Delivered in countless auditoriums and on street corners, in 1966 and 1967 and 1968 as Kennedy’s political evolution proceeded, they cut through the myth and the mystique. They allow people of my generation, and those of subsequent generations, to understand why Robert Kennedy’s death changed the course of American history as surely as his own brother’s. It’s not that Robert Kennedy was prescient, although he surely was. It was that he was able to tap into the “human meaning” of politics and then communicate what he found in a way no politician has since.
In June 1988, Ronald Reagan was president but his conservative revolution already was winding down. In June 1998 Bill Clinton was president and had just fought his impeachment battle. In June 2008 the second Bush presidency was coming undone and Barack Obama had bested Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And here we are today, marking half a century since the unthinkable happened yet again in American politics. Now, more than ever, with a man like Donald Trump in the White House, with rancor and division at the center of his administration’s policies, it’s important to remember that it really is okay to care.
It’s okay to care about children being separated from their parents at our borders. It’s okay to care about a federal government that scorns scientific knowledge. It’s okay to care about rank corruption among cabinet officials. It’s okay to care about voter suppression being used as a tactic by one party to disenfranchise citizens. It’s okay to care about a new tax law that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It’s okay to care about dehumanizing criminal suspects and to decry police misconduct. It’s okay to care about racism openly expressed by elected officials. It’s okay to care about rollbacks in civil rights and health care.
It’s okay to care about another election being hacked by the Russians. It’s okay to care about judicial nominees who won’t say that Brown v. Board of Education was properly decided. It’s okay to care about a president who cannot help but lie. Caring about these things, caring enough to bring some empathy back to public policy, is not a sign of weakness. It is instead, as Kennedy understood at the end of his life, a sign of great strength and moral courage. That photograph hangs in my son’s room because I want him to grow up to care deeply about those less fortunate than he. I want him, as Kennedy once wrote, “to seek a newer world.” I cannot think of a better way to memorialize what Robert Kennedy has meant to me.
(Image: JFK Library)
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.