Today, a friend sent an audio file of the speech Robert Kennedy gave in Indianapolis, Indiana the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
I’d heard of it and even read excerpts, but had never actually listened . To say it’s an amazing piece of American political rhetoric is just to repeat what so many have written before. What moved me was the transformative quality of a speech that lasted barely six minutes. This was a speech given before CNN and cell phones. King was dead but the crowd of African-American supporters Kennedy was about to address didn’t know. There had already been riots in other cities and Kennedy was strongly urged by police, afraid the same could happen in a part of the city already considered dangerous, to cancel his address.
In barely six minutes, Robert Kennedy began his speech by breaking to this crowd some of the most tragic news of a generation and at the end had the crowd cheering a call to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”–cheering the call for peace and prayer “for our country and for our people.”
It’s a powerful reminder of how gifted Robert Kennedy was–how singular his ability to lead people, without a script, to capture their hope even at the worst of times and inspire them to be true to the best parts of their natures by making appeals to love and justice.
After hearing the speech, and after all that was written yesterday, the remembrance of his death, I hoped to find a way to talk about Robert Kennedy with readers of BRO–an audience interested primarily in hyperlocal news.
If there were a way to do it, I knew Kevin Gaughan would be the only one to help. In addition to being the city’s and one of the region’s strongest and most eloquent advocates for civic dialogue and meaningful change, Kevin is a lifelong friend of the Kennedy family.
When Kevin was in college in the early 70s, just a few years after Robert Kennedy was killed, Ethel Kennedy invited him to live with the family, which he did, teaching six children under the age of twelve to play tennis and sail during his years at law school. The only time Kevin has ever written about his friendship with the Kennedy family is in his book, At First Light.
In the chapter that follows (and that Kevin has kindly allowed us to excerpt) he describes his feelings after attending a private family memorial service for Robert Kennedy.
Fathers, Family, and Robert Kennedy
by Kevin Gaughan
Robert Kennedy’s youngest child, Rory, was born after he died. On evenings when her mother was unable to take her, we would ride together on my bicycle up Hyannisport’s Sunset Hill to watch the magic of day dissolve into night.
At age five, blonde and beautiful, Rory possessed an independence and bravery that struck even her mother, Ethel, as remarkable. On family sailing picnics (usually made up of 10 or 15 children, Ethel, me, and enough peanut butter and jelly to coat the entire hull), Rory did virtually everything the older children did except permit anyone to assist her over the transom when climbing on board after a swim. When sudden storms overtook us and banished everyone below, Rory remained on deck with her mother and me, her face visible through damp towels that wrapped and separated her from piercing breeze. She was at once a fiercely willed and utterly serene child. And she was my favorite.
On the steep hills of Arlington Cemetery last Sunday evening, a human sea of moist eyes and reconciled hearts stood in tribute to Rory’s father, their own fathers, and somehow, the loss inherent in human plight. Looking upon their faces, I thought of children whose father had gone, those who shall lose theirs, and those who never even get to see their father, and wept.
As President Clinton rose to speak, my mind’s eyes saw mothers and children gathered at another burial site just up the river but almost 150 years removed in Gettysburg. Their fallen sons and fathers had also given what Abraham Lincoln called that day “the last full measure of devotion.” Borrowing from and improving upon the thoughts of the Greek statesman Pericles (one of Robert Kennedy’s heroes), Lincoln spoke of the living that would spring from the dead. He contrasted the inadequacy of words to consecrate a ground that men of valor had already rendered sacred, with his obligation to carry on their unfinished work. And he spoke of the fitting and proper nature of pausing to dedicate in Pennsylvania, just as Pericles had in Peloponnesia over a thousand years ago.
As has been discussed in works of considerable scholarship, Robert Kennedy left much unfinished work. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s seminal biography, informed by this theory of alternating ages of reform and conservatism in American Political life, most accurately places Kennedy in that narrative.
But beyond Robert Kennedy’s public achievements, it always seemed to me that examination of his political career misses the essential element of his being: as with all heroic Americans, he considered devotion to family to be the highest form of public service. And during my brief time with them, I came to see his devotion reflected in the adoration and esteem in which his wife and children held him. Indeed, if other fallen heroes belong to the ages, perhaps Robert Kennedy belongs to those of fierce independence and passion, like that of his daughter, Rory.
From the time that Ethel Kennedy first drove to the Hyannis Airport to pick me up, through her once bailing me out of jail for riding a motor scooter a bit too swiftly past a town policeman, and even after her well intentioned parental approval of me forever doomed whatever small chance I had of impressing her daughters of datable age, I have never known a woman of more kindness and joy. It was easy to see how her beauty and humor caught her husband’s eye.
Based on chats with his brother, sisters, and Ethel, during which my curiosity may have exceeded my tact, I suspect that Robert Kennedy possessed many of the attributes ascribed to him by admirers and detractors alike. And over the years, through a proud friendship with some of the children he cherished, I came to a sense of his essence, perhaps best illustrated in a videotape commonly shown in television documentaries of the Kennedy area.
A presidential helicopter lands on a Cape Cod lawn, and from its enormous side emerges President John Kennedy. As a rush of children races to greet the arriving group, your eye can’t help but follow the quiet grace of the distinguished president. But if your view remains on the helicopter steps, Robert Kennedy appears. Reacting to the energy and glee of the children at just the sight of him, he falls to his knees to embrace them, and disappears in a swirl of joy and love.
And as I stood on Arlington’s hill, among the statesmen and soldiers who lie in silent tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit, I lamented that I had no children of my own to whom I might pass on such sentiment.
But as dusk turned to twilight, I realized that if we grasp the imperative of humanity to which Robert Kennedy devoted his life, we recognize our bond with and obligation to all who follow us.
At First Light by Kevin P. Gaughan Copyright 2003, Canisius College Press.
Photo of Kevin Gaughan and Robert Kennedy, Jr. taken in Buffalo April 26, courtesy of Daeman College.
And thanks to Chrissy Corrigan for help putting this post together.