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We were in the final weeks of the school year -- I in the final sprint of eighth grade and my sister finishing tenth. It was a warm, sunny morning, and she was waiting at the spot in our neighbor’s driveway where the school bus scooped us up each day to join the other sleepy riders on the boring trip to another uneventful day of classes. My sister managed to get out of the house before me and, when I caught up, greeted me with what seemed like a bad joke.
“Did you hear that Kennedy was shot,” she asked.
“Ha-ha, very funny,” I replied.
Of course I knew that President Kennedy had been shot. It was less than five years since it happened, and we had all sat glued to our television set for days watching the black-and-white footage play over and over again, first of the Dallas motorcade, then of Ruby shooting Oswald, and then of the fallen President’s funeral.
“No, I don’t mean President Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was shot.”
My heart sank. Like millions in my generation, I had come to idolize Bobby Kennedy. He was quickly gaining momentum in his run for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. I may not have known it quite yet, but he had just won the California primary and was about to head to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention where, as heir-apparent to the Kennedy dynasty, he had a very good chance of winning his party’s nomination. If he did win, he also would pose a serious tthreat to the candidacy of Richard Nixon. And if he was elected, we believed he would end the Vietnam War. Our hopes were dashed when we learned that day, June 6, 1968, not only that he was shot, but that the wound was mortal.
In his early years, Bobby Kennedy was a protégé of Senator Joe McCarthy, and can be seen by the soon-to-be-disgraced Senator’s side in the coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings. (I chalk that up to the bad judgment of youth and inexperience.) A few years later, when his brother Jack became President, he became a tough Attorney General, intent on prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa and taking a strong stand against organized crime. After Jack was killed, Bobby went through a period of grief and soul searching, eventually to emerge as a Senator representing my home state of New York.
It was in that interregnum period that Bobby Kennedy seemed to find his voice. He became a champion for the poor, an advocate for civil rights, and a powerful proponent of ending the increasingly unpopular and costly war which was dividing our country and which a growing number of Americans saw no point in fighting. He was young and idealistic and was viewed by millions as the breath of fresh air America so desperately needed during those turbulent days of anti-war protests and urban race riots.
During Bobby’s short-lived campaign, television news networks reminded us of the 16-minute standing ovation he received at the 1964 Democratic Convention as he was about to introduce a film tribute to his fallen brother. Bobby was still grieving, as Jack was only nine months gone. Despite the younger Kennedy’s continued attempts to begin his speech, the crowd’s thunderous, protracted applause overwhelmed him. I was only nine years old when it happened, but even at that tender age I watched the live coverage and was stunned at how long the ovation lasted (sixteen minutes, after all, is a long time to stand and applaud). I’ve never witnessed a stronger show of support for another human being than the one Bobby received that night.
Just two months before his own assassination, Bobby Kennedy made a moving, impromptu plea for non-violence and love as he delivered the tragic news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to a crowd of black and white supporters waiting for Bobby in Indianapolis. His was a needed voice of calm and compassion. One can only imagine how our nation’s direction might have changed, and how many American and Vietnamese lives saved, had he not also been silenced.
Today there is a new politician with the same name who has thrown his hat in the Presidential ring. He is inexperienced at governing and lacks his late father’s extraordinary charisma. According to media accounts, Robert Kennedy, Jr. spouts debunked conspiracy theories, is an anti-vaxxer, and recently promoted arguably racist views. Some members of the Kennedy family reportedly have disavowed him. The main reason he is receiving so much attention is that he bears the Kennedy name.
I don’t know Robert Kennedy, Jr., and do not wish him ill. I hope he finds happiness and fulfillment in whatever path he follows. I also don’t assume he is a bad person (despite some offensive miscues), and I expect he is making or at least trying to make sone positive impact in a troubled world.
But, as is always true in any family, the son is not the reincarnation of the father. The name may be the same, but the experiences and qualifications of the men bearing it couldn’t be more different. One can only hope that voters will see past labels and base their decisions on the candidates who wear them.
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