Standards of Leadership: What The Current POTUS Field Can Learn from Robert Kennedy

Author: 420 Times
Created: 13 July, 2015
Updated: 16 October, 2022
4 min read

"What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists." - Donald Trump

"People don't have the guts to address [Illegal Immigration]" - Donald Trump

"Our next President must work with Congress and every other willing partner across our entire country. And I will do just that -- to turn the tide so these currents start working for us more than against us." - Hillary Clinton

"These Republicans trip over themselves promising lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer rules for the biggest corporations without regard for how that will make income inequality even worse." - Hillary Clinton

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by a white man. That night, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to give a speech at a rally in the heart of Indianapolis' ghetto. Despite being urged by the Indianapolis police chief to cancel the event -- warning that riots were certain to erupt -- Kennedy resolved to attend.

Many in the crowd of three thousand mostly black attendees were not aware that King had been assassinated. Stepping to the microphone, Kennedy delivered the sad news.

"I have some very sad news for all of you and I think some sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee."

The outpouring of grief can be felt in the audio records of the speech, but Kennedy continued. What followed was an improvised speech, but one of immense power, setting a standard for political leadership that seems to be absent among the current presidential candidates.


It is in the final paragraphs of his speech that the qualities of leadership, absent in today's presidential field, shine the brightest.

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"We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."

It would be easy to mistake this article, extolling a speech given by one of the leading symbols of progressivism, as partisan. But what Kennedy displayed in this speech is that political leadership is far different from partisan leadership.

On April 4, 1968, what was needed in our country was not blame, it was not hatred -- it was leadership. Kennedy had a pulpit by which he could make an effort to lead, to heal a nation that in 1968 seemed to be spinning out of control. He recognized the moral responsibility of his position -- something Donald Trump fails to do.

In using this pulpit, Kennedy did not promise the world. In addressing one of the great challenges of the time, he did not promise an end to violence, an end to lawlessness, or an end to disorder. He did not promise to turn the tide of society, only that society could turn the tide for itself. He chose his words to lead, not to appeal -- something

Hillary Clinton fails to do.

He did not blame. He did not villainize. He did not attack. He recognized the universal truth that runs through America: that most Americans, regardless of race, income, or political affiliation, want what is best for our nation.

The monumental problems we face as a nation cannot be solved by continually driving away the other side. Real leadership bridges the gap. This is a quality that the current presidential candidates lack.

More than 40 years later, the power in Kennedy's words continues to ring. We can do well in this country. The diverse problems we face as a nation may make excellent fodder for partisan candidates, but no candidate will accomplish anything if we do not first accept the responsibilities of leadership. As a nation, as voters, we need to dedicate ourselves to a higher standard of leadership -- one that does not tolerate fear mongering or hollow campaign promises.

We will not eradicate partisanship, or fringe candidates. We will not eliminate empty shirt politicians or hollow campaign rhetoric. But our better angels have not ceased to exist, and we deserve candidates that represent them.

Editor's note: This article, written by Andrew Smith, originally published on The Centrist Project's website on July 11, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN. To learn more about The Centrist Project, visit the organization's website, or follow the group on Facebook or Twitter

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