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Horowitz: RFK - 50 Years On

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


Robert Kennedy

Tomorrow marks 50 years since Robert Francis Kennedy’s(RFK) death, gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after giving his victory speech in the California Democratic Presidential Primary. Kennedy’s victory in California over the other anti-Vietnam War candidate Gene McCarthy put him in a competitive position to overtake Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and capture the Democratic nomination for President. Kennedy would have been a solid favorite to defeat the ultimate victor, Richard Nixon, in November.

Only 42 when he died, RFK, like his brother John, calls to mind the famous Dylan song “Forever Young.” That is how he remains in our collective memories. The sense of unfilled potential and possibilities will always be front and center. Arthur Schlesinger captured this in his 1978 biography of Kennedy in words that still ring true today. “He never had the chance to fulfill his own possibilities, which is why his memory haunts so many of us now." And the mythology as with all things Kennedy can be thick and hard to penetrate

But the real growth in Robert Kennedy, there for all who had eyes to see, after the tragedy of his brother’s assassination--the Kennedy that was there in his final campaign-- was a compelling and unifying presence with a message that is very much relevant in today’s divisive times.

As Jack Newfield, who knew him well, wrote, “Part of him was soldier, priest, radical, and football coach. But he was none of these. He was a politician. His enemies said he was consumed with selfish ambition, a ruthless opportunist exploiting his brother's legend. But he was too passionate and too vulnerable ever to be the cool and confident operator his brother was."

“What made RFK unique, Newfield continued. “was that he felt the same empathy for white working men and women that he felt for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.”

Kennedy was able to combine being tough on crime with opposition to the Vietnam War and steadfast support for civil rights, assembling a coalition that included working-class whites—police, firefighters and construction workers--young activists, African-Americans, and Latinos. He bridged the cultural and racial divides of the time—which were even fiercer than today’s divisions.

Bobby in that campaign appealed to our optimism and patriotism; to what binds us together as Americans; to in Lincoln’s famous words, ‘the better angels of our nature.”  As RFK said, in words adapted from George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

During the height of apartheid, Kennedy expressed his strong opposition at an appearance in South Africa: “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 that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

We must draw on Kennedy’s example in marrying high ideals with pragmatic action. That is the spirit we can and must recapture to put our nation back on the right path.


Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. 


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