Robert Francis Kennedy died when he was just 43 years old from the bullets of an assassin’s gun. We’ll never know how his story would have played out, but the American public was just beginning to reap benefits from a political metamorphosis seldom seen.
That was 49 years ago, he’s been gone longer than he lived. I expect there will be a ton of articles, columns, and books published in the next year to honor Bobby’s memory. I thought I’d get a head start because it may take time to fully appreciate how he transformed from a bulldog, Washington insider intent on seeing that the letter of the law was executed without regard to nuance into that rare breed who can be a D.C. insider for more than a decade and emerge from a self-made chrysalis, repurposed as an outsider with an agenda focused on the interests of common people. He held on to his bulldog, never give up attitude, but his manner became pure compassion.
Bobby was introduced to Washington in 1951, working as an attorney in the Department of Justice. In 1952 he joined up with Sen. Joseph McCarthy as an assistant counsel on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He took his job seriously and prosecuted suspected Communist sympathizers. He never really settled comfortably into the job, as he was skeptical of how McCarthy got information for his cases. Soon Kennedy became at odds with Roy Cohn. Cohn was a lead attorney prosecuting McCarthy’s cases. When RFK found that one of the people Cohn had on trial was the wrong person–same name, but wrong person–and wouldn’t release her, he challenged the contentious Cohn. If Cohn’s name sounds familiar, he famously befriended a young Donald Trump and taught him to never apologize, to continually hit back, no matter what, and maintain an image of infallibility. Apparently, Cohn succeeded with Trump, but failed in his face-off with Kennedy. The woman’s case was dismissed.
Kennedy left the subcommittee to work on the campaigns of his brother John for the Senate and Adlai Stevenson for president. Next, he returned to government employ to serve on the (John C.) McClellan Organized Labor Committee. There, Bobby found a cause he could sink his teeth into. His volatile, vitriolic confrontations with Teamster President James Hoffa are legendary. In the years Bobby worked on the committee, convictions of crime and corruption in organized labor rose 800%.
He proved himself as a valuable D.C. insider who stood for law and order. But subtly his thinking began to shift to concerns about those outside Washington’s Beltway. He saw the injustice of racial bias and the waste of treasure in war. While serving as Attorney General in his brother’s cabinet, he advocated for civil rights activity and eventual legislation that sought to remedy the ugly aura of Jim Crow. Bobby was always a step ahead of his brother and brought the president around to becoming a strong advocate for equal rights.
After JFK’s assassination in 1963, Bobby became Senator Kennedy and an even stronger advocate for the poor and powerless. At that time he began speaking out against the Vietnam War, calling for its end.
Bobby Kennedy cemented his renaissance from Washington insider to champion of the common people around the globe during a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966. He said, “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.”
Two years later, on the evening of April 4, 1968, Bobby was prepared to give a campaign speech in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was running for his own chance to be President of the United States. However, instead of his stump speech, he was forced to alter his message. He became the bearer of news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated that day. He spoke from the heart about his personal loss just five years prior and shared his belief in peace and understanding. While cities across the country broke out in rioting and protest, the people of Indianapolis heeded Bobby’s words and quietly went home to grieve for their most cherished leader.
Bobby had completely transformed himself from a dogged, tunnel vision defender of laws, into a hero of common people, imploring the country to treat every human with dignity, and to seek peace in our lives and government. He joined his brother as the rare breed of public figure who magically captivates throngs of people. The crowds loved Bobby and he willingly loved them back.
He got only two more months to develop his leadership before he too was gone on June 6, 1968, joining the long list of charismatic leaders from that turbulent period of our history to be taken too soon.
We’ll never know if he could have been the transformational leader for which he showed such great promise. He learned, over the span of 17 years of service, what was important and made the changes in his life to reflect that humility. We were drawn to him because he was personally able to show us that change is possible. He was showing us that we are not perfect, but with a clear conscious and careful listening, we could work together to be better people seeking a better country.
We’ll never know if RFK would have fulfilled his promise. Our national nightmare continued with the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968. Perhaps Bobby Kennedy could have tweaked history toward a kinder, more truthful, more peaceful society. We’ll never know what might have been.