Monday, June 4, 2018

Robert F. Kennedy: The Dreamer Who Said Why Not

May I ask your indulgence as I quote myself? For historical context, these are the opening paragraphs from Chapter Ten of my book, Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution (Pastoral Press: 2009). 

In a decade already on overload, 1968 went over the top.  This was the year when the issues, ideals and frustrations of the entire decade exploded into Gotterdammerung.  Nothing was safe from 1968’s unrelenting wave of confrontation and change.

The decade that started out with such bright promise was marching steadily into darkness, and the road was marked with a murdered President, an escalating and unpopular war, racial conflict, urban unrest, college campus demonstrations, and a challenged morality.  America needed light.

As the year began, two beacons of hope were shining brightly.  Martin Luther King, Jr. still had a dream that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Senator Robert Kennedy, still hurting from his brother’s assassination, had his own dream to fulfill: to help make America great by inspiring its people, especially its young people, to look honestly and compassionately at the problems of the day and work together to build the future.

One of these lights was extinguished on April 4, when King was brutally gunned down while laboring in support of better working conditions for the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee.  On June 5, the other light died when Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles on the night of a victorious California primary election that solidified his position as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President.  With sad irony, his last words, spoken from the podium to his exuberant supporters, were: “I think we can end the divisions within America . . .  the violence.”

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It was the final day of school and we were going home for summer. I was a Freshman at Queen of Angels High School Seminary in San Fernando, California, and 1968 – only half over in June – had already been the most memorable year of my life. Queen of Angels was a boarding school. Underclassmen went home every weekend but my time away was significant enough to alter my family dynamics and move me in a more independent direction than I had anticipated when I first set foot on campus last September. 

Friendships are important for survival in any new school, and this year I made a good friend in Phill Signey. We had in common a love for the Beatles and for comic books, as well as a shared wry sense of humor. We also saw eye to eye on politics, and the Democratic party had given us young liberals more than enough to talk about during this tumultuous year. We both agreed the war in Vietnam sucked and held President Johnson responsible for the thousands of US soldiers who had given their lives for a questionable cause. Many in our generation wanted Johnson out of the White House. When he announced in March that he was not seeking re-election, we were singing, “Ding! Dong! The witch is dead!” 

But now the Democratic nomination was suddenly up for grabs. Senator Eugene McCarthy was capturing the imagination of young liberals but when Senator Robert Kennedy threw his hat into the ring that liberal voting bloc became divided. 

I was a diehard for Bobby. The idyllic memory of his brother, President John Kennedy, was still fresh in my mind and Bobby’s message resonated with so many young Americans. 

“We can move toward further polarization,” Kennedy said in a speech shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination. “Or we can make an effort, as Dr. King did, to reconcile ourselves, and to love… Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.” 

We had no television privileges at the seminary. Tuesday, June 4, was the California primary election, and we seminarians went to bed believing that Bobby had a lock on victory. The following morning, as we gathered in our chapel for the final Mass of the school year, Father Persil, Dean of Students, stood in front of the altar and gave a stunning announcement. 

“I’m sorry to inform you that Senator Robert Kennedy was shot last night at the Ambassador Hotel after he won the California primary. He is hospitalized and is in critical condition. Let us pray for him and his family.” 

I looked at Phill, who was sitting next to me near the back of the chapel. Our glorious pipe organ swelled out the introduction to the Entrance Song and, as the student body rose to its feet to sing “God’s Holy Mountain We Ascend,” my friend sadly removed his Kennedy campaign button from his dark blazer. I hung my head in glum disbelief. 

I was in fifth grade when President Kennedy was murdered in 1963, and I remember crying when I heard the news. After his brother was killed, I didn’t cry – I was too “old” for that – but I was definitely numbed. I was a fairly optimistic teenager and Bobby had awakened such hope in my generation. I didn’t know what to feel that day when Bobby was so rudely taken from us but his death may have been my first taste of the cynicism that would eventually come to cast a shadow on much of my adult life. 

Much has been written about Robert F. Kennedy on this 50thanniversary of his assassination. Many commentators cite Bobby’s murder as the death of hope for the Boomer generation. That’s hyperbolic but I believe there is a grain of truth in that viewpoint. For my generation, the 1960s had been awash in optimism. Anything was possible, and Bobby inspired us to get involved and make a difference right when we were coming of age. His death unfortunately paved the way for the election of President Richard Nixon, for the escalation of the Vietnam War, for Watergate, and for deepening distrust in the political process. That cynicism has, unfortunately, seized control of politics today. 

At one time, public service was considered a noble calling. I cling to the hope that better days are ahead. Can one person make a difference? Robert Kennedy tried. God rest his soul. 

Senator Ted Kennedy spoke eloquently and touched many hearts in his moving eulogy during his brother’s Funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. 

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not.

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