Hope, in the embodiment of Robert F. Kennedy, Democratic junior senator from New York and aspiring presidential candidate, dissipated in the wind on a balmy June night. It was a watershed juncture in U.S. history, when hope was what the nation desperately yearned more than anything else.
Not long after midnight on June 5, 1968, having just defeated Senator Eugene McCarthy in the California presidential primary and after delivering his victory speech to a crowd of supporters, Kennedy exited the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Carving a path through the hotel’s kitchen, Kennedy was confronted and shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian national who was born in Jerusalem when it was still under British Mandate rule. Some 26 hours later, the mortally-wounded Kennedy – affectionately called Bobby by family and close friends — died.
Kennedy’s slaying completed a horrific trifecta of death by assassination that began with the killing of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963 and was followed five years later by the killing of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, only two months before Robert Kennedy’s death.
Sirhan Sirhan harbored a deep hatred against the Jews, who he believed had taken his country. Kennedy’s outspoken support for the State of Israel made him a target for Sirhan’s vitriol. When Kennedy delivered a speech supporting the sale of US Skyhawk and Phantom fighter jets to Israel, his fate was sealed as far as Sirhan was concerned. Following the assassination, a search of Sirhan’s home uncovered notebooks in which he had written: “R.F.K. must die. RFK must be killed. Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated…before June 5 ’68.” Notably, June 5, 1968 marked the first anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War on June 5, 1967.
For virtually his entire life, Robert Kennedy lived in the shadow of his older brother. Bobby was eight and a half years younger than President Kennedy, and several inches shorter. Despite his professional accomplishments as attorney general in the Kennedy and, then, Johnson administrations, Robert Kennedy’s critics dismissively thought of him as merely John F. Kennedy’s little brother – as if that was how he was to be defined.
Following JFK’s assassination, Bobby became withdrawn and worked hard to hold the devastated Kennedy clan together. But nine months later, in August 1964, he announced his run for a U.S. Senate seat representing New York, which he went on to win in the November election. On March 16, 1968, Kennedy launched his presidential campaign in a move that pitted him as an unlikely challenger to incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bobby’s detractors saw this as underscoring their belief that he was ruthless and opportunistic. However, his supporters viewed Kennedy as tough but fair. Most important, Kennedy was erudite and thoughtful, empathetic and compassionate; he expressed his views clearly and plainly.
Given that the nation was bogged down in a war in Vietnam and rocked by race wars at home, Kennedy saw no choice but to run. “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies,” he said. “I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.” Ever the optimist, Kennedy believed that the U.S. had to “stand for hope instead of despair.”
When it came to Israel, Kennedy didn’t demur or hide his positions. Rather, he was straightforward and unapologetic in his support for the Jewish nation. During a visit to Mandatory Palestine in April 1948, one month before Israel declared its independence, Kennedy served as a special correspondent for The Boston Post, reporting on his eyewitness views of the conflict between the Jews and Arabs. “The Jewish people in Palestine who believe in and have been working toward this national state have become an immensely proud and determined people,” wrote Kennedy in one of his four dispatches, published in June 1948. “It is already a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation with the primary ingredients of dignity and self-respect.” In another article, he asserted that, “If a Jewish state is formed it will be the only remaining stabilizing factor in the Near and Far East.”
Nearly 20 years later, in a letter to a New York constituent dated June 9, 1967 – while the Six Day War was still raging — Kennedy reaffirmed his support for Israel. Reacting to the United Nation’s call for a ceasefire, Kennedy declared that “a ceasefire is not enough.” He continued: “We must deal with the causes of the conflict by ensuring a permanent and enforceable guarantee of Israel’s right to live secure from invasion.” Today, more than 50 years after those words were spoken, they still ring true.
For those of us too young to vividly remember Robert F. Kennedy, or who weren’t born yet (I fall into the former cohort), it is difficult to truly appreciate and understand what he represented to the country. Always refusing to despair about the nation’s future, Kennedy preferred to dig deep and seek out the poets whose words were beloved to him and which he assiduously jotted down in the journals he had kept since he was a young man.
A year before his death, Kennedy published a book titled, “To Seek A Newer World.” It was a collection of his essays and speeches that addressed the pressing issues of the moment. Its title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1842 poem “Ulysses”:
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world…
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Of all the words and thoughts that Robert Kennedy shared during his abbreviated lifetime, it is the following remark that has become his defining declaration. It remains my favorite:
“Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why’? I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not’?”