There is no doubt that for a large segment of the American populace, the Kennedy family name conjures up feelings of nostalgia. That may especially be the case as it relates to Robert Francis Kennedy.
“Bobby” died 50 years ago on June 6, 1968. Had the late Senator from New York lived to take residence in the White House, I’m convinced, after reading a recent biography about him, he would have propelled our nation forward in meaningful ways. He is a complex figure—much more so than his brothers—whose leadership could have led to a political environment that looks far different than the one we’ve become accustomed to today.
I originally bought Larry Tye’s narrative Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon to learn about this historic figure from my parents’ generation. My impression coming into the book was that Robert Kennedy largely lived in the shadow of his brother, President John Kennedy, and tragically lost his life in the same way—by an assassin’s bullet. But I concluded the book with a much greater appreciation for the man and his story.
Bobby Kennedy as his own man
In short, Tye’s book is a rich narrative about a dynamic individual. Kennedy seemed to perpetually be in motion throughout his life. He was forward-looking, and he was impatient with those who couldn’t keep up. Bobby truly wrestled with issues, not in some abstract academic fashion, but in a practical, real world sense. He learned by experience, and this comes across most vividly in the windows we are provided on his travels abroad to learn about other cultures, his encounters with Civil Rights leaders, and on a visit to the Mississippi Delta where he viewed poverty in America up close. In other words, he allowed himself to learn and grow in lieu of being tied to a particular dogma.
In many ways, Bobby Kennedy very different from his brothers. He was devout in his Catholicism, and his faith informed many of his decisions. He was intensely loyal to his wife, Ethel, and his family. He developed an ability to relate to citizens of all backgrounds, which later allowed him to forge a coalition of African-American supporters and blue-collar white voters. While he dealt with personal challenges, they never seemed to consume him like they did others in his family.
If there was one area where he was similar to his older brother, it was in his ability to rhetorically frame his arguments. Bobby was able to capture the boundless spirit that lies at the heart of the American experiment, like Jack; yet he communicated in very realist terms. He thought, despite all the shortcomings that were especially evident in his time, America was still a virtuous nation where the struggle for human flourishing could be won, though it would be difficult. In an address to the Virginia State Bar he noted, “The travail of freedom and justice is not easy, but nothing serious and important in life is easy. The history of humanity has been a continuing struggle against temptation and tyranny—and very little worthwhile has ever been achieved without pain.”
Of course, as you read the book, you understand where it is ultimately headed—Bobby’s assassination in California. I couldn’t avoid wondering what else would have been accomplished in areas like race relations, rapprochement with Fidel Castro in Cuba, the Vietnam conflict, and the direction of the Cold War had history not so violently intervened.
The biggest takeaway
Perhaps the biggest takeaway was the markedly different political environment surrounding Kennedy compared to our polarized era. To be clear, culturally, we were even more divided than what we see today. But electorally, voters seemed to give their political leaders a chance to listen, learn, and grow in office. Kennedy took full advantage of that opportunity. But it is important to note that he could only do that with time.
Today’s office seekers do everything possible to avoid being labeled a “career politician,” mainly because voters have been conditioned to despise the term. But the result of that has been a largely dysfunctional Washington. We now seem to be missing something that was all too apparent in Kennedy’s time: There is an undeniable value in having elected officials who understand the practice of conceiving, developing, and shepherding public policy to passage.
Many will read this book through the partisan lens of today. If so, they will find it becomes harder and harder to fit RFK into modern definitions of liberal and conservative. While Kennedy has a prominent place on the political left, in many areas, Bobby took very conservative stances. I suspect that is because Kennedy valued solutions, and he viewed politics as a vocation where some common good could be attained for a country he loved. If today’s officer seekers dropped the politics of division for the principles of unity, a refreshing message would be sent to a weary electorate.
Ultimately, that responsibility falls on us, the voters. If we actually want leaders with the vision and depth Bobby Kennedy possessed to emerge once again, and we want to have a Washington that works for us once more, we will have to place a higher value on basic decency and a competent record of public service. That’s what Kennedy represented, and, while many may claim his mantle today, there are too few willing to roll up their sleeves and actually do the hard work of governing like he did.