Robert Kennedy’s Eulogy: Seeing Things as They Are Not

When you consider what great political speeches you have heard–the ones that impact your life–which ones come to mind?  For the Boomers, obvious choices include John Kennedy’s inaugural address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (his last one in Memphis is also memorable,) and Ronald Reagan’s speech in front of the Berlin Wall.

For me, one other should be added to the list, and it was delivered forty years ago today: Teddy Kennedy’s eulogy for his assassinated brother Robert, given at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  It’s especially fitting to recall it today, not only because of Senator Kennedy’s current struggle with brain cancer, but also because another young idealist–Barack Obama–has just clinched the Democrat nomination for the Presidency.  Comparisons of Obama with the Kennedys–both uplifiting and ominous–abound.  So it’s a fitting time to recall this moment.

Robert’s assassination came at one of the lowest points in our Republic’s history.  Opposition to the Vietnam war–a war which his brother Jack had helped to fuel, but which Lyndon Johnson ended up taking the blame for–had ripped apart our political fabric, just as the social upheaval of the era had done the same with our society.  Looking back, Robert Kennedy was in a way the first prominent American casualty in the “war on terror,” as Sirhan Sirhan had killed him in revenge for the Six Day War the previous year.

To his credit, Teddy turned his thoughts and the thoughts of his listeners and viewers upward–toward the idealism that his brother had made the leitmotif of the 1968 campaign.  Part of his purpose was to honour his brother, but another part was to perpetuate that idealism and facilitate its turning into reality in the face of the multiple assassinations that marred the 1960’s.

In the intervening years many on the left have wondered–what happened?  And the usual answer of same left is to blame their political opponents–most prominently Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the current George Bush.  But I’ve learned two things in the intervening two score.

  1. People who blame everything that goes wrong in life on others are, by definition, failures.  And that’s true politically, too.
  2. The last forty years, IMHO, were the left’s to lose, not the right’s to win.  I articulate this in my piece Finishing the Job.  If the largesse doled out couldn’t bond people to their government, what can?  Teddy Kennedy’s own career is emblematic of the problem.  Lionised today by friend and foe alike, had he not had his own scandals to deal with, he could have taken the nomination in 1980 and Ronald Reagan would have never entered the White House.

In exploring this issue, there are two things touching the eulogy itself I’d like to mention.

The first concerns the following statement:

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education.

That happened with a vengeance.  Once the Boomers picked themselves off of the floor after the explosion they had detonated in the 1960’s, they went after financial success with a vengeance, turning careerism into an obsession rivalling anything the Middle East has to offer.  That in no small measure fuelled the Reagan Revolution, along with, at the other end of society, those whose Christian convictions made them unwilling to acquiesce in a 60’s style radicalisation of society.  The result was the reignition of the American economy, with all of the results that has brought.

The second concerns the end of the eulogy, which is a favourite of mine:

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”

The great enemy of true liberalism is statism.  The lofty idealism which permeates this eulogy and much of liberalism’s rhetoric gets lost in the implementation.  For the simple fact is that the state has only two methods of getting people to do what it wants them to do: bribery, through manifold government programs and tax incentives, and coercion, through the draconian provisions of criminal and civil code alike.  Much of the grandeur of the whole thing evapourates in the midst of bureaucracies and the legal system. Reaction to that also helped to fuel the Reagan Revolution; ignoring that is one the greatest failures of George W. Bush, which is why the left is in the position it’s in today.

Beyond that statism stifles creative thought and action.  We stick with conventional ways when we really need innovative solutions.  Why is enegy policy an “either/or” proposition of production and conservation when it should be a “both/and” issue?  Why can’t we apply ourselves to make our hard-working immigrants Americans in every sense of the word instead of either trying to keep them exotic foreigners with American citizenship tacked on or instituting a mass expulsion?  Why do we continue a state monopoly of schools when so many other countries fund their students to attend state and non-state schools alike?  Why do we fight over same sex civil marriage when we really need to debate whether we need civil marriage at all?  There’s not as much dreaming “of things that never were” as we’d like to think.

Today the Democrats have put forth a candidate who echoes the optimism and idealism of Bobby Kennedy’s day, and who has received a similar reaction.  But the problem now as then is that the left simply has too much baggage–baggage that demands control when freedom is what is called for–to give him the liberty to put that precious word back into liberalism.  (We really don’t know enough about him to say whether he wants to do that or not, but that’s another story…)  Additionally, a party that just came off of a close nominating race still divided by race, gender, education and economics has a long way to go to realise Bobby Kennedy’s dream of a world united by its common humanity.

I guess that’s why I cannot bring myself to buy into this new wave.  It looks too much like the old one that, as Frank Zappa would say, started out as liberation but didn’t quite make it.  Like many, I became a cynic in the post-1960’s crash, and by the middle of the 1970’s was longing in my writings for outside intervention to solve our problems.  (We may get it yet!)  But happily the God that put me here was in charge, and I ended up investing what hope I had in what the ancients called “the peace of the Fish.”

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