Robert F. Kennedy For Our Time

I started writing opinion pieces and magazine articles 39 years ago. I’ve written for the Los Angeles Times, New York TimesBoston Globe, Baltimore Sun, and other U.S. and Canadian newspapers. Since March of 2005, I’ve written a monthly column for the Presidio Sentinel, a community newspaper in San Diego.

I’ve lost track of the number of opinion pieces I’ve written, but for the Sentinel alone I’ve written 78 columns and more than 125,000 words.

I’ve opined on everything from Slobodan Milosevic, the “Evil Butcher of Belgrade”, to baseball’s Tony Gwynn, from Joe Biden to Billy Graham, but despite all those words and subjects I am not qualified to judge my “body of work.” In the grander schemes of things, that is a judgment which will never be made because one has to be worthy for others to think your thoughts and ideas are important enough to judge. I am certainly not important.

From time to time someone will say, “I understand you’re a writer.” Given that I am privileged to claim as friends some of the nation’s most accomplished writers – trust me, it’s a very long list – the idea I might be considered a “writer” seems silly. True, I am a gentleman of a certain generation who writes and has a need to “opine”, but a writer I am not. In so asserting I pretend no false modesty.

With that as preface, let me say one of the great privileges of my life was to be a press aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the presidential campaign of 1968, and one of my continuing honors is to be thought a friend of the family.

I have in the past paid tribute to Bobby’s life (one of which tributes can be read on The City Club of San Diego’s Web site www.cityclubofsandiego.com), but over a recent weekend I listened to some of Bobby’s speeches on a CD. Of course, I’ve done that before, and will again, but it never fails each time I hear his voice I am deeply moved, because no one in my lifetime spoke as Bobby spoke – no one!

There is a moral quality to his words on issues of social justice no other political figure has matched, and I doubt few clergy have equaled, save Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourners’ Jim Wallis.

I believe Bobby challenged us as no other person has in our history, not even Mr. Lincoln. I further believe now, more than ever, others must rise to challenges in similar fashion – beginning with the President himself, Barack Obama.

What follows is an edited version of Bobby’s famous Day of Affirmation speech, delivered June 6, 1966 to students of the University of Capetown in South Africa (which you can listen to at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fArgCaFb1c):

“We stand here in the name of freedom. At the heart of that western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, all groups, and states, exist for that person’s benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any western society.

The first element of this individual liberty is the freedom of speech; the right to express and communicate ideas, to set oneself apart from the dumb beasts of field and forest; the right to recall governments to their duties and obligations; above all, the right to affirm one’s membership and allegiance to the body politic – to society – to those with whom we share our land, our heritage and our children’s future.

Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard – to share in the decisions of government which shape our lives. Everything that makes our lives worthwhile – family, work, education, a place to rear one’s children and a place to rest one’s head – all this depends on the decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people, and I mean all of its people. Therefore, our essential humanity can be protected and preserved only where the government must answer – not just to the wealthy; not just to those of a particular religion, not just to those of a particular race; but to all of the people.

And even government by the consent of the governed, as in our own Constitution, must be limited in its power to act against its people: so that there may be no interference with the right to worship, but also no interference with the security of the home; no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties on an ordinary citizen by officials high or low; no restriction on the freedom of men to seek education or to seek work or opportunity of any kind, so that each man may become all that he is capable of becoming…

For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, on social class or race – discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and to the command of our Constitution. Even as my father grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, signs told him that ‘No Irish Need Apply’.

Two generations later, President Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic, and the first Catholic, to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic, or because they were of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in the slums – untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to our nation and to the human race…

We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people – before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous – although it is; not because the laws of God command it – although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.

Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that comes with even the most peaceful progress. This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of…

‘There is,’ said an Italian philosopher, ‘nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’ Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation and the road is strewn with many dangers.

First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single person.

A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. ‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world.’

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation…

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.

‘If Athens shall appear great to you,’ said Pericles, ‘consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty.’ That is the source of all greatness in all societies, and it is the key to progress in our own time.”