“It is simple to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition
and private gain…It is easier to fall in step with the slogans of others
than to march to the beat of an internal drummer—to make and stand
on judgments of your own. And it is easier to accept and stand on the
past, than to fight for the answers of the future.
“Jefferson Davis once came to Boston and addressed his audience
in Faneuil Hall as ‘countrymen, brethren, Democrats.’ Rivers of blood
and years of darkness divide that day from this. But those words echo
down to this hall bringing the lesson that only as countrymen and
brothers can we hope to master and subdue to the service of mankind
the enormous forces which rage across the world we live in. And only
in this way can we pursue our personal talents to the limits of our
possibility—not as Northerners or Southerners, black or white—but
as men and women in the service of the American dream.”(1)
Senator Robert F. Kennedy
University of Mississippi
March 18, 1966
It was 40 years ago today that Robert Kennedy stood in the old senate chamber and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, “not to oppose any man”, I remember him saying so clearly, “but to propose new policies”. And so began the brief odyssey to “seek a newer world” ending only weeks later in that pantry in Los Angeles. It has been left to this generation to agonize over what might have been. Would there have been no Nixon presidency, no Watergate, no disillusionment? Would Bobby have been able to bring the country together? Would there have been a more timely and just end to Vietnam? Would there then have been no need of the redemption that was Jimmy Carter, or the ensuing failures that led to Ronald Reagan? Would there have been no conservative resurgence and if so, what form would it have taken? We will never know for history has a way of eliminating all alternatives.
Years of darkness followed that awful night in Los Angeles for what lay dying on the kitchen floor was not only a man driven by overarching ambition, but perhaps the last, best hope of a generation to bind up the nation’s wounds and bring the country together. Robert Kennedy stands as the last statesman in American politics to unite blacks and poor whites, Hispanics and minorities, protestant and catholic, rich and poor. His death saw the immediate disaffection of southern and poor whites to the race-baiter George Wallace beginning a long slow slide of zero-sum, divide and rule political machinations that have led, by degrees, to this miserable place we presently find ourselves. The death of Robert Kennedy finished the old New Deal coalition, already straining at the seams, and brought to power first the disciple of Dwight Eisenhower then the apostles of Barry Goldwater. America has not been the better for it. I stop today to pay my respects to that gallant effort begun so long ago and to mourn that we have been now 40 years in the wilderness.
“Out of this long political darkness, a brighter day will come” said a young Barack Obama as he finished his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In this hope he had followed the well-worn path of George McGovern, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson who implored us during the darkest Reagan years to “keep hope alive”. And as this campaign season began an unlikely first-term junior senator from Illinois with nothing but the “Audacity of Hope” began his improbable challenge to the established order. As the primaries began to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the voice of hope arose against those who have gone over to the ‘dark side’ calling the young and the old, the rich and the poor, and those of us who have labored in the vineyards of Democratic party politics in vain for so long, to rise up and reclaim the heart of the party and defend the soul of the country. He stands today, as Bobby did those many years ago, on the threshold of victory.
At the convention speech in 2004 he had talked about how the pundits and the politico’s had “sliced and diced” America into various groups and regions, dividing the nation into rich and poor, black and white, young and old, north and south, blue and red. He understood the politics of cynicism that, like a cancer was eating at the soul of the republic. He said that “we are all one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” And then he asked, “Do we participate in the politics of cynicism or do we participate in the politics of hope?” Ever since this has been the message of the young Jedi as he has combated the old order. Not since Robert Kennedy have we had a champion who has held out the hope that “out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come”. (2)
Conot, Robert. Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, Bantam Books, Inc. New York, New York. 1967