Robert Kennedy’s actions remind of true purpose of politics

America Letter: Half century ago, amid assassinations and protest, US had hope

Senator Robert F Kennedy shakes hands with the crowd on a street corner in Philadelphia on April 2nd, 1968, two months before his assassination. Photograph: Warren Winterbottom

Senator Robert F Kennedy shakes hands with the crowd on a street corner in Philadelphia on April 2nd, 1968, two months before his assassination. Photograph: Warren Winterbottom

 

As Donald Trump passed his 500th day in office this week, there was a whiff of nostalgia in the air.

Fifty years after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, his friends, family and senior members of the Democratic political establishment gathered in Arlington Cemetery for a memorial service to honour his memory.

But the wave of national introspection prompted by the anniversary has been in the ether all year. This year has seen the publication of several books and articles on 1968 – “the year that changed America”, as CNN put it in its four-part documentary, which aired last Sunday.

The year was punctuated by two assassinations that left America and the world reeling – the killing of Martin Luther King jnr in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4th, and the assassination of New York senator Robert Kennedy two months later in a Los Angeles hotel. Their murders took place against a background of violent social unrest.

The race riots that ripped through more than 100 cities following King’s death were accompanied by an increasingly vocal movement against the Vietnam War, which split not only the country but also the Democratic establishment itself.  

Tensions erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, when the Chicago police force, under the director of mayor Richard D Daley, violently suppressed anti-war protesters. Images of violent clashes were beamed across the world, a visual indication of the tensions tearing through America.

President Bill Clinton referenced those times during his address at Arlington Cemetery on Wednesday.

Deepening divisions

“Every day seemed to bring a new piece of bad news, and a deepening divisions in America,” said Clinton, who was then a student at Georgetown, just a few miles from Arlington Cemetery.

Many have been keen to point out that the divisions and anger currently present in American society pale in comparison to the violent racial and social unrest of 50 years ago, when political assassinations and deadly riots gripped the country. America survived 1968 and will survive 2018 has been the message.

But Wednesday’s event in Arlington was about channelling Robert Kennedy’s belief in social equality to effect change in today’s world. Congressman Joe Kennedy jnr lauded the “army of young activists” that has emerged in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. Bill Clinton urged the crowd to “advance the work that he [Robert Kennedy] could not finish”. No one mentioned Donald Trump, but the comparisons were everywhere.

The late senator’s son, Robert Kennedy jnr, was more forthright in his comments at a reception at the Irish Ambassador’s residence after the service. Recalling a trip with his father to communist Poland in 1968, his son reflected: “That was a time when other countries looked to America for leadership.”

Without mentioning Trump, he spoke of the role of the politician. “Every nation like every human being has a darker side and a lighter side, and the easiest thing for a politician to do is to appeal to our hatred and our anger, our selfishness and greed and bigotry . . . It’s a much more difficult thing to do – as my father tried to do – to step outside of ourselves, to do something good for the entire community and transcend narrow self-interest, and avoid the seduction of the notion that we can advance ourselves and people and leave our poor brother and sisters behind.”

Danger of idealisation

Of course this week has seen an idealisation of Robert Kennedy and a misrepresentation of some of the facts of his character and politics. Despite much talk of “what-ifs” – Robert Kennedy had announced his run for presidency just three months before his death – some historians question whether he would have won the Democratic nomination in 1968.

Similarly, his role as an advocate of the poor towards the end of his short life was preceded by a very different kind of politics. His early work with Senator Joe McCarthy during the witch-hunt against suspected communists, and his role in sanctioning surveillance of Martin Luther King jnr, are not forgotten. Similarly John F Kennedy’s appointment of his younger brother as attorney general smells of nepotism in today’s political climate.

But what is clear is that Robert Kennedy underwent a profound personal and political change following the devastating death of his brother. His decision to visit the disenfranchised, from the poor working-class towns of Appalachia to native American reservations to the townships of South Africa, bore testimony to a man who was motivated to help those in society who most needed help. 

Fifty years later, it is a telling reminder of the true purpose of politics.

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