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Robert Kennedy and our times

By Ciaran Ryan - posted Friday, 6 June 2008

June 4, 1968: Robert Kennedy came triumphant to the podium, and in a room filled with cheering supporters, claimed victory in California’s primary election, thus making it almost certain that he would be the Democrat Party’s nominee for President of the United States. Kennedy embodied the hopes and dreams of millions throughout the world who longed for a society based on justice and equality, and who joined with him in the belief that the Vietnam War was immoral, and had to come to an end.

Following the assassination of his brother in 1963, Robert, taking the advice of Jackie Kennedy, had turned to the Greek tragedies to find comfort and solace. The burden of his brother’s murder had almost destroyed him, but these writings enabled him to come to terms with suffering, and this in turn transformed him into an advocate for all who endure injustice. Kennedy became the champion of the poor, of immigrants, of ethnic minorities: in short, to all for whom the “American dream” apparently did not apply.

It was therefore a tragedy worthy of the Greek classics that on that hot June night, when Kennedy was poised to fulfill the hopes of millions, that he was gunned down only seconds after his victory speech.


Lingering in a coma, he died today, June 6, 40 years ago.

His death robbed America’s downtrodden of their greatest champion, and four decades later, Kennedy’s message is needed again, perhaps more than ever. For today, as then, the “land of opportunity”, “of the free”, does not have justice for all.

Any visitor to Washington DC, would be astounded to find that the capital city of the “richest nation on earth”, is full of homeless people sleeping on park benches. While they proudly maintain the various monuments dedicated to their nation’s glory, they turn a blind eye to the poverty right in front of them. Less visible is the poverty that cuts right across the nation, with over 20 per cent of minors living impoverished; the highest rate in the industrial world.

RFK had once said, “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil”. A nation that collects close to two trillion dollars a year in taxes is obviously the land of “plenty”, but until Americans share Kennedy’s belief that poverty is “evil” and must be eliminated, it will remain someone else’s problem.

What should be understood is that Kennedy wasn’t your usual “bleeding heart liberal” seeking to implement a welfare state: rather he believed that the key to lifting people out of poverty was by giving business financial incentives to invest in poor neighbourhoods. By offering people a hand up instead of a handout, he believed it would end dependency on government and empower people to step out from the poverty cycle.

Closely linked to poverty is the injustice of America’s healthcare system. RFK famously said in 1968, “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why’? I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not’?” If America can send a man to the moon and spend trillions on its “War on Terror”, why not use that inventiveness and those resources to provide universal healthcare? Kennedy asked his fellow citizens to work with him to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world”. The savage nature of the healthcare system in the US has got to be tamed, and if it were, the lives of some 45 million uninsured would certainly be made gentler.


But perhaps RFK’s vision is most needed to inform American foreign policy. When in 1962 his brother JFK was being advised to invade Cuba to prevent it being made a base for Soviet nuclear weapons, RFK made an impassioned argument that were America to do this, it would lose its moral standing in the world.

Taking his brother’s advice, JFK chose instead to use diplomacy to end the crisis and averted what could have been a nuclear war. Contrast this with Bush’s 2003 pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, a nation that unlike Cuba did not pose a “clear and present danger”, and the stark differences are clear for all to see. For America to regain respect throughout the world, the next Administration would be well advised to embrace RFK’s advice that diplomacy is always far superior to war.

Robert Kennedy’s appeal lies in the fact that he was not your usual politician. He believed firmly in what he said, and it reflected the personal journey that he himself had made. He had true idealism, and integrity; qualities that can’t be faked. And as the following quote from RFK’s 1966 trip to an apartheid South Africa demonstrates, he believed that the transformation of society is based on each individual showing similar principle:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus 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 and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Words as meaningful today as they were four decades ago.

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About the Author

Ciaran Ryan has a PhD in American Presidential History from the University of Southern Queensland.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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