Remembering Bobby Kennedy
By John Parisella
May 30th, 2008
The following article is my way of remembering the passing away of
Robert F. Kennedy 40 years ago:
He was not a great speaker and he occasionally stammered in public,
yet he moved millions with his words. His record as Attorney General
of the United States during the Kennedy Administration was considered
mixed, yet he is remembered for his courage and his integrity. As
Senator from the state of New York, he had few achievements, yet he
towered over his colleagues as a beacon of hope and the keeper of JFK
flame of idealism. Forty years later, a man who lost his life in his
quest for the US presidency is remembered as the last great authentic
politician of his time. Some would venture to add, no one has since
matched his promise and his inspiration.
Soon after his assassination, a special publication of Life magazine
presented a look at his life and times. On the back cover, the
authors mused as to whether one could justify his candidacy and the
'larger than life' portrayal of his life, had he not been the brother
of President John F. Kennedy. They concluded that Bobby Kennedy's
candidacy was justified in its own right. It is significant that we
recall why and why he is so often referred to in this current
presidential election year.
Before JFK became president in 1960, the younger Kennedy labored in
the shadow of his brother. His major claim to fame until then was his
role in securing his brother's nomination for the Democratic Party
and in orchestrating the electoral victory in November 1960.
Responding to the pressures of the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph P.
Kennedy, JFK went on to name Bobby as the Attorney General where he
distinguished himself mostly by his relentless fight against organized crime.
The election victory of John F. Kennedy in 1960 ushered in a decade
of turmoil and transformational change. If JFK's victory as the first
Roman Catholic to be elected president was significant, it paled by
comparison with the crescendo of the civil rights movement and
eventual legislation, the divisive war in Vietnam and the landing of
a man on the moon. It was a period of debate, confrontation,
sometimes violent, and polarization. Three assassinations (JFK,
Martin Luther King, and RFK) will be remembered as evidence of a time
of violent conflict and fundamental change in the course of America.
Let us revisit the 1960's.
If President Kennedy represented change and a new direction in 1960
("Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for
your country."), Martin Luther King embodied inspiration. Dr. King, a
young man with the vision and conviction of non violent change,
inspired and mobilized Americans of different races with his call for
justice and equality. It was he who said that we must judge one
another 'not on the basis of our color, but on the content of our
character." Under Dr. King's leadership, and with President Kennedy
acknowledging the civil rights battle as a moral issue, America came
to grips with having to deal with its original sin. Later, under
President Lyndon B. Johnson, the legislation first introduced during
JFK's administration came to pass thereby ending legal segregation.
In 1965, LBJ also had Congress adopt the Voting Rights Act.
The next defining moment of the sixties was the Vietnam War.
Following the failures of France in achieving peace in Indochina, the
United States stepped up its involvement and activity in the region.
Under President Kennedy, US advisors were sent to support the allies
in South Vietnam against the communist guerillas, the Viet Cong, and
their supporters in Communist North Vietnam. Later, President Johnson
would increase the US role by sending combat troops. Casualties
mounted significantly and the outcome of the war was in doubt leading
to anti-war protests and an eventual anti-war movement of young
Americans protesting the continuation of the war. Bobby Kennedy, now
a Senator from New York and the heir to the Kennedy legacy, was
looked upon as the one hope to extricate America from this unpopular
war that he had originally supported. Kennedy, while admitting some
initial error, eventually changed course on the war and opposed
Johnson's Vietnam policies.
By 1968, the anti-war movement was in full force and the pressures on
Bobby Kennedy to run for the presidency intensified. While there was
no love lost with President Johnson, Bobby hesitated to break from an
incumbent President of his own party. In February 1968, however, he
formally announced his run for the presidency.
What followed is possibly the most intense period of turmoil in the
history of the United States. Lyndon B. Johnson started a peace
initiative with North Vietnam while announcing he would not seek
reelection. Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota and
anti-war activist, continued his quest for the presidency fighting
for the same constituency as RFK. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther
King was shot and killed in Memphis. Race riots broke out that very
night in all the major cities in America with one exception. Enter
On the night of the King assassination, Kennedy was scheduled to
speak in Indianapolis to a group of citizens including a large
contingent of African Americans. Internet and all-news stations did
not exist at the time, and Bobby announced the bad news to the crowd.
That this city was the only major US city to avoid a riot is largely
attributed to Bobby. Time Magazine columnist, Joe Klein, in his book
'Politics Lost' refers to Kennedy's speech as the last great
authentic address made by a leading politician in recent times. He
may be right.
When addressing the crowd, Kennedy spoke without notes and, in his
unique way, referred to poets to bring solace to the devastated
crowd. He quoted the Greek poet, Aeschylus, who wrote: "In our sleep,
pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in
our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful
grace of God". He then asked the crowd to dedicate themselves "to
tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."
Two months later, June 5, 1968, after winning the California primary
against his rival, McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy was shot and pronounced
dead on June 6. He was just 42 years old.
The Bobby I remember is the one who literally grew before our very
eyes. From the tragic assassination of his brother on November 22,
1963, we saw the transformation of Bobby Kennedy. From the ruthless,
efficient backroom operative to a compassionate, inspiring and
idealistic leader who was able to bring together rich and poor, old
and young, black and white, and the disadvantaged to believe once
again that politics was a noble endeavor and the ideals of America
were worth cherishing and defending in the world. People cried when
he died and his last remaining brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy,
eulogized him "as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to
right it, who saw war and tried to stop it, who saw suffering and
tried to heal it".
This year we have witnessed an incredible and historic campaign
within the Democratic Party. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
have found inspiration and strength in the works and the example of
Bobby Kennedy. Some see the current mobilization of young voters for
Senator Obama as reminiscent of the youth of the sixties for Bobby.
While it is far too early to equate Obama with Kennedy, it is clear
that a political leader able to inspire and mobilize is unique and
sometimes comes only to a new generation of voters wishing to be
empowered. Forty years ago, we heard this call. I never forget to
mention that I was led to public service by the example of Bobby
Kennedy. I often refer to his favorite quote: "Some people see things
as they are and ask why? But, I dream of things that never were and
ask why not?" In his times, words still mattered and he touched the
spirit of America. This captures the essence of Bobby Kennedy and why
it is worthwhile to remember him forty years later.
San Bernardino recalls Robert F. Kennedy's unifying idealism
Robert Rogers, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 05/28/2008
Forty years ago today, the tides of history swept through San Bernardino.
Then 14 years old, Vivian "Ruthie" Garcia saw the movement up close,
locked eyes with it, touched it, then refreshed it with a tall glass
Garcia was one of thousands of Westside residents who turned out on
May 29, 1968, for Robert F. Kennedy's visit to the Inland Empire.
"We loved him," Garcia, now 54, said, her voice still cracking at the memory.
One moment has stayed with her forever: Kennedy's motorcade cruising
through the 1400 block of Seventh Street, by where Garcia and her
family had staked out their spot on the curb.
The motorcade stopped in front of them and the slight girl was drawn
straight to the car. She remembers the colors, the eyes and the
mannerisms, but she doesn't know how she burrowed through the crowd
and security to get so close.
"I made eye contact and waved and he waved," Garcia said. "I got
closer and I raised my glass, and I said `Do you want some?' he nodded yes."
Garcia said RFK took the glass, drank from it, and passed it to a
security guard to drink before getting it back and passing it back to
her waiting hands.
Garcia was adamant about every detail.
"I didn't know about politics, but I knew we had never had someone
like this come before," Garcia said. "He had the kindest eyes."
Riding a seemingly inexorable wave through the nation's largest
state, Robert F. Kennedy cut through San Bernardino, making what
would be one of his final pilgrimages through an American community.
It lasted just a few hours, but left indelible memories.
Just days later, in a Los Angeles hotel, the euphoria would be dashed
in a grainy, televised haze of shocked and anguished faces.
But Kennedy's trek through San Bernardino lives on, under a tragic
pall that has never completely lifted.
His motorcade steered first into the city's impoverished, mostly
minority Westside, a lasting testament to his devotion to the underprivileged.
While motoring down Mount Vernon Avenue and surrounding streets, the
cars slowed to a crawl and the candidate, as had become custom,
plunged into the clutching arms of supporters.
Photos from newspapers published the next day reveal the bustling,
electric quality of the visit. Kennedy's shirt was rumpled, untucked
by the gantlet of loving hands that pawed him.
Kennedy's route wound its way to Pioneer Park, now the site of Norman
F. Feldheym Central Library, where he delivered a speech to thousands.
A divided city was linked that day. Witnesses recall the spectacle of
throngs of Westside residents who rarely crossed the dividing 215
Freeway, breaching the artificial boundary and pouring into downtown.
For some, danger hung in the air. Martin Luther King Jr. had been
struck down by an assassin the month before, and passions over the
war and civil rights were ratcheted to a near revolutionary pitch.
Images of the Vietnam War, beamed nightly into millions of living
rooms, were by then burned into the nation's conscience. Walter
Cronkite in February declared the war a "stalemate."
Protest wracked the nation at home. In April, students commandeered
buildings at Columbia University.
The Black Power movement had taken hold. Students at Howard
University in Washington, D.C., laid siege to an administration
building in protest over its ROTC program.
In a March 1967 speech, Kennedy raised the issue of morality and the
Vietnam War in stark terms, in a raw, emotional language no one would
expect a presidential candidate to use today.
"Although the world's imperfection may call forth the act of war,
righteousness cannot obscure the agony and pain those acts bring to a
single child. It is we who live in abundance and send our young men
out to die. It is our chemicals that scorch the children and our
bombs that level the villages. We are all participants," he said.
When Kennedy's tireless campaign motored out of town south to
Riverside, it left in its wake a promise of hope and unity in a city
long divided along racial, class and cultural lines.
For Bobby Vega, 48, the power of national politics and the individual
vote were coalescing around Kennedy's campaign in 1968.
Then 9, Vega spent his days that spring at a Robert F. Kennedy
campaign office in the 700 block of Mount Vernon Avenue, where his
mother volunteered. Vega and his little sister helped his mother,
packaging fliers, making campaign buttons and doing outreach to area
Then, the man himself came.
"There was an energy, a feeling through the community that I had
never seen before," Vega recalled. "This Mexican-American community
was totally energized by this man, this white guy. I didn't
understand it at the time."
Vega followed the Kennedy caravan that day. The slow procession was
followed by throngs of people on foot through the mostly
Mexican-American neighborhood, traveling east on Seventh Street,
South on J, west on Fifth Street and north on F Street.
The procession ended at the park, Vega said, where a multi-ethnic
crush of locals heard Kennedy speak.
"Viva Kennedy!" Vega recalled. "That was what was on the buttons I
was passing out and what people were saying."
The frenzy that had become a trademark of Kennedy's campaign was on display.
"Everybody wanted to touch him. He would reach out, and people were
grabbing at his clothes, Vega said."
It was not until June 8, 1968, when Vega and his parents watched
Kennedy's funeral services, beamed onto their black-and-white
television, that he would more fully grasp the impact.
"My mom and dad were crying," Vega said. "It blew my mind, to see my
During a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2001, Vega was struck by the
profound solemnity of Robert F. Kennedy's resting place in Arlington
National Cemetery, which is marked by a solitary cross.
"A part of me wanted to try to understand again. Who was this man who
brought tears to my father's eyes?" Vega said. "He reached out with a
powerful message I don't think I'll ever see something like him again."
The tragedy has never left Garcia either. A lifelong Westside
resident, she boasts that her stories about her encounter with
Kennedy are known by her extended family and friends in the neighborhood.
After her lemonade slaked RFK's thirst on Seventh Street, she and her
grandmother and aunt jumped in their car and motored to Pioneer Park
ahead of the motorcade. Once Kennedy arrived, Garcia and her family
and friends were already positioned along his path to the stage.
"My grandmother grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek," Garcia
said. "She loved him. We all loved him. He was the one who cared."
It was a triumphant and tragic time, 1968. Years later, Watergate
would bring down the Nixon presidency, which ascended on the ruins of
the year that saw the death of Martin Luther King Jr., RFK and the
Democratic Party's broad coalition.
At RFK's austere memorial is a quotation etched in granite.
The words are lifted from the legendary "Day of Affirmation" speech
he delivered at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1966.
In that speech, Kennedy articulated his conviction that any lone man
or woman can muster contributions that further a people toward a better ideal.
The words came in his customarily stilted, New England Irish cadence,
and resonated in a land scarred by a history of violence and injustice.
But the message was universal to democracies across the globe and
here, in the United States, in communities like San Bernardino.
On that day in 1966, and in the granite at the memorial today, the words read:
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human
history is shaped. 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
which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."