Robert f. Kennedy and the 1968 campaign

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PAUL KIRK: Welcome to everyone. Welcome to what promises to be a memorable celebration of the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert Francis Kennedy. With all the clarity that hindsight affords, I submit that 40 years ago today began the most noble, valiant, three-month march ever undertaken in American politics. [applause] I believe I can speak for all of my colleagues gathered here this afternoon and say what a privilege it was to be a part of that mission.
I welcome the women and men who worked and served with Robert Kennedy, those who advanced for him, those who researched and wrote about him, all who were inspired by him, and all who loved him. First and most importantly, I ask you to join me in the warmest of welcomes to the First Lady of that campaign, and of all the campaigns she carries on in his name, our pal, Ethel Kennedy. [applause]
Several generations of the Robert and Ethel Kennedy family are here with us, I think, and if they’re not they’ll be here shortly. I know Ethel’s daughter, Courtney, and their daughter, Sasha, if they’re not here, they’ll be joining us, daughter-in-law, Vicky Gifford Kennedy and her daughter, Rory, grandson Joe Kennedy III, and I’ll have the privilege of introducing Kathleen in just a few moments. Expected, if he’s not here, we always want to salute Phil Johnson, who chairs so ably the RFK Memorial and does a great job for Robert Kennedy’s legacy in that capacity. Members of our Board of Directors, Steve Smith, if he’s here, and two of Robert Kennedy’s cousins, Bob Fitzgerald and Joe Gargan. Let me say, on behalf of John Shattuck, the CEO of the Library Foundation and Tom Putnam, who’s the Director of the Library, how grateful we are to our sponsors for allowing us to put on conferences of this nature and of this importance. Our lead sponsor is Bank of America -- we give Anne Finucane, a member of our Board, credit for that -- The Boston Capital. Lowell Institute, the Corcoran Jennison Companies, and the Boston Foundation, and our media sponsors include the Boston Globe, NECN and WBUR.
Conferences such as this couldn’t take place without some able work on the part of our staff, and I want to point out in particular Tom Putnam, Tom McNaught, Amy Macdonald, and Nancy McCoy. [applause]
This is one of those rare times when all of us are allowed to feel young again and to be grateful for our association with Robert Kennedy and his family, and to take pride in having been a part of something larger than ourselves. In the campaign of 1968, Robert Kennedy lifted the nation’s hopes and provided a clear vision and path to a better world. By example, he reminded us why politics can still be an honorable profession. This 40th anniversary permits us to celebrate and capture again for future generations the inspirational lesson of his quest for peace and for a newer world of compassion and reconciliation and justice; his energy and passion for the possible through active service; his idealism balanced by pragmatism; his courage to reach beyond himself and to challenge us to do the same; his belief in the politics of values and the value of politics; his intolerance of indifference and his compelling moral force and voice for criminal, racial, social and economic justice.
These were the powerful messages of an extraordinary politician in his campaign for the presidency of the United States. No spin. No manipulation. No focus groups. Maybe a little Dick Tuck prank here and there. But at its core, a message of gospel values. In many ways, this celebration of Robert Kennedy’s campaign exemplifies the very mission of this Library. This building is not a monument to nostalgia. Nor is that our purpose this afternoon. The daily and defining purpose of this Library is about the future and about inspiration. The daily and defining purpose of the public lives of the Kennedy family has been, and continues to be, about the future. And the central legacy of the Kennedy family will always be one of inspiration.
The decision for Robert Kennedy to run for president was complex and difficult. And I suspect we may hear something about that in the next few minutes. For now, let us go to the caucus room of the Senate of the United States, March 16th, 1968, and listen to an excerpt of what Robert Kennedy said in announcing his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.
[video clip]
BOBBY KENNEDY: I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. My candidacy must be tested beginning now, five months before the convention, and not after the primaries are over. I think that is the least that I can do to meet my responsibilities to the Democratic Party and to the people of the United States.
[end video clip]
PAUL KIRK: One of the most important living legacies of Robert and Ethel Kennedy is the commitment their children have made to improve this world through service. The eldest among them is Kathleen: mother, attorney, author, professor, politician, public servant. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has blazed a trail from a private practice in environmental law to assistant attorney general of Maryland, to deputy assistant attorney general of the United States, to lieutenant governor of Maryland, to an adjunct professorship at Georgetown University at its School of Public Policy, and to a visiting fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Kathleen has chaired the RFK Memorial and was founder of the RFK Human Rights Award. She is a member of the Board of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation and of several other nonprofit institutions. She is the author of the wildly acclaimed and powerful book, Failing America’s Faithful. To know Kathleen is to more fully appreciate the power of faith, the energy and the sense of mission that moved her father and her mother and continue to drive her in all the good that she has accomplished for so many. Please welcome Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. [applause]

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Thank you so much. Thank you, Paul. It’s great to be here. I want to thank Paul for leading the John F. Kennedy Library and reviving it and doing such an extraordinary job, and all the staff at the library -- John Shattuck, Tom Putnam, Amy Macdonald -- for arranging this memorial today and for the work that they do daily. They really do a fabulous job. So thank you so much. Really, thank you. [applause]
And, of course, I want to thank my mother, who, as you pointed out so well, Paul, has carried on my father’s legacy and helped all of us, all the children, to remember him and to keep as a family loving and caring for one another. So thank you so much, Mum. [applause]
And I just saw Phil Johnson. Thanks for showing up. Phil is the chair of the Robert K. Memorial and is doing just a wonderful job. He started the Robert Kennedy Action Corps here many, many years ago and is just really a dedicated human being. So it’s good to be with you.
This is a wonderfully interesting year to remember my father. His name is in the news. Many people are referring to him, quoting him, claiming his legacy. Disputes are rampant, and I’m not just talking about my family. [laughter] Of course, there are questions. Who is best able to carry on Robert Kennedy’s legacy? Who speaks for him? His wife? His namesake? His youngest child? His oldest? I go for the oldest myself. [laughter] There must be some advantage to years.
More seriously, the endorsements of different political candidates by members of my family, each of us recalling my father, brings me to the happy conclusion that his legacy lives, it matters, it’s important. I remember walking with my father one cool evening. It was just the two of us at twilight, and the stars were just starting to come out. The President had died a few months before. My father was telling me how he’d tried to create the best administration, what an extraordinary group of people had worked in that effort, and how special that time had been. He then quoted, as we walked, the Crispian Day speech: “This story shall a good man tell his son and Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed that they were not here and hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispian’s Day.”
Certainly, I was impressed that he could recite Shakespeare, but I was not surprised. My bedroom was next to his room where each morning he listened to Shakespeare as he did his sit-ups. The story of him besting Richard Burton in a Shakespeare reciting contest in front of Elizabeth Taylor, no less, was part of family lore. Nor that evening did I think how he just talked about manhood and brothers, not sisters and women. That awakening came to me at another time. But that evening I was moved by the sadness of my father’s loss and touched by his deep desire, yearning really, that the feats and scars of those 1,000 days would be long remembered, would be toasted, and talked about for years to come.
He would take satisfaction that we are here today, then, and that we glory in the deeds of giants such as John Seigenthaler and Bill vanden Heuvel and Gerry Doherty and Dolores Huerta and Rafer Johnson and Peter Edelman. He would be pleased.
Still, unlike Henry the V, whose legacy is the glory of a single battle well fought, my father’s memory is more complicated. He engaged in multiple fights in different fields of endeavor. Trying to define my father’s legacy reminds me of a passage in Andre Malraux’s book, Man’s Fate, where the general and the intellectual struggled to figure out what wisdom means. The general declares that everyone defines wisdom in a way that reflects their own worldview, their priorities, and their best view of themselves. I think there’s something to that in how each of us feels about Robert Kennedy. How we look at him says a great deal about how we define the challenges that our country faces, what we want from our leaders, and what we think of ourselves.
There are many aspects to my father: prosecutor, defender of civil rights, moralist, athlete. He prosecuted the mob because he said either they will own the country or we will, and he shamed J. Edgar Hoover into admitting that organized crime did in fact exist. He stood up to Southern governors who had been his allies and who wanted to perpetuate segregation. And then went on to help enact two of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Like Winston Churchill, he believed that moral courage was the most important virtue. So he told college students at Creighton University that the draft deferment was unfair, medical students in Kansas that they had a responsibility to pay for healthcare, and liberals across the country that work was worthwhile. He appreciated the role of faith in public life. On his visit to South Africa in 1966, he said, “It’s not realistic or hard-headed to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and a passion and belief, forces ultimately more powerful than all the calculations of our economists or our generals.” And the God he prayed to was not made in his own image, but was a large God who cared about justice for all.
When he returned from South Africa, he wrote an article entitled, “Suppose God Is Black.” He challenged himself physically, a varsity letter with the Harvard football team, climbing Mount Kennedy, walking 50 miles in bad shoes and snow and ice, kayaking down the Colorado, and telling me, at our Saturday morning touch football practices, “Kathleen, if you can touch it, you can catch it.” Easy for him to say.
He had a great sense of humor. When a Southern governor upset about a Justice Department policy would complain, “This is the most outrageous thing that has ever happened and the attorney general should be impeached.” He would call up the senator and say, “I was thinking of changing my job anyway.” The list goes on. Each of you would have your own special remembrance and insight.
But I would focus on three aspects of my father in the pursuit of justice that I think are most relevant today: politics, results and compassion. First, politics. During his senate campaign, he was being interviewed on a TV talk show and I was sitting in the Carlyle watching him all by myself. The host asked a question and then said something to the effect that, “But you’re not a real politician.” My father could have ducked or demurred. Instead, he disagreed and said, “Yes, I am. I am a politician.” That was a gutsy thing to say because it was popular then -- just as it is popular now -- to criticize politics and politicians, to run against Washington, to claim self-righteousness: “I’m not like those people.” But my father used to quote often John Bucken (?) that “politics is the most honorable profession,” and in fact a book of memories by his friends was entitled An Honorable Profession. His appreciation of politics and engagement, that he saw that happiness comes from participation, from knowing that you can affect change, from knowing that your voice counts not just on election day, but throughout the year in a variety of settings.
So he insisted that 51 percent of the board of community health centers be drawn from the community. He liked community action programs because they were supposed to achieve maximum participation. Government was not supposed to do things to you or for you, but with you. Second, he focused on results. During the 1968 campaign, he said that government is the way to solve our most solemn, common problems. I wish we had politicians today who could say that now. I wish that they would not knock what they’re doing, not pretend it is awful, but rather explain what’s attractive about politics. Why it can be used to solve our biggest and most difficult problems: healthcare, education, the war in Iraq, social security.
When my father saw a problem, he wanted to solve it. He would ask, “What are we going to do about it? Who can help? How are we going to get results?” He was action-oriented. He wanted to accomplish something, not just complain. He wanted people to focus on the problem and solve it. He didn’t want vague answers. I think he was frustrated in the Senate because there was not that same sense of urgency, of getting the job done. In fact, he would often complain that liberals were more interested in being right than getting legislation passed.
In 1967, when the education bill was enacted, he worked really hard -- in a measurement system -- to see if all that federal money that was going into the local school districts would actually get people more educated. And I’m telling you, he met with a lot of resistance then. But he persisted.
And third, what he gave us was a sense of compassion. I think the memory of my father still lives because he touched people’s deepest desires to live a good life. Forty years ago, my father ran for president and still hardly a day passes without someone telling me about an encounter, a shared moment, an act of kindness. He still touches people all around the world. In February, 1968, he agreed, he had agreed, to speak on Sunday evening at my high school in Vermont. And so my parents spent that weekend in New England, during what turned out to be our last weekend together. We raced each other down the ski trails in the brisk air, discussed my paper on Wordsworth by the fire, and talked about running for president.
I loved that he wanted to hear about my life, school, friends, and he wanted to hear what my fellow students were thinking about: Vietnam, race relations. He was so good at asking questions and listening. That Sunday, he addressed the assembled students and talked about the war, the violence in our cities, the desperation on Indian reservations. He painted a picture of a world yearning for justice, and he asked us -- as the privileged and fortunate students that we were -- to get involved, to take our responsibility seriously, to resist merely private pleasure and to use our gifts to lighten and enrich the world.
That night, my friend Sophie and I decided to take up his challenge and to work on an Indian reservation in the summer. I did not imagine then that I would be living with the Navajos after his death. In looking back, I see that he believed in me and he believed in the power and potential of youth, believed that we must make moral choices about our lives. His own sense of justice recognized a role for righteous anger and the value of love and compassion.
He often cited the graffiti on the wall of the pyramids that no one was angry enough to speak out. And his anger at injustice impelled him to attack corruption in the labor unions. He insisted that the Greyhound Bus Company, which resisted transporting the Freedom Riders, to find a driver. He reminded the sheriffs who wanted to preventively arrest the farm workers about the Bill of Rights. He suggested to American diplomats who would defend South American oligarchs and North American business interests that those who make a peaceful revolution impossible make a violent revolution inevitable.
And yet, when the injustice attached to him directly, he did not react in anger. When my uncle, John Kennedy, died, he wrote me a letter from the White House. “Dear Kathleen, You seem to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the grandchildren, you have a special responsibility. Be kind to others and work hard for your country. Love, Daddy.”
At that moment, he could’ve been bitter. He could’ve been angry, resentful, vengeful. And yet by writing, he told me that he was thinking of me, caring about me, wanting me to be responsible, kind and loving. Most remarkably, that understanding heart embraced people all around the world, not ones who were easy to love, but those who were difficult. He believed in treating enemies with respect rather than vilifying them, so he wrote Just Friends and Brave Enemies. He said we should talk to the Vietcong. He reached his hand to children living in unheated shacks in Appalachia, to students protesting US foreign policy in Japan and South America. He broke bread with Cesar Chavez after his month-long fast. His love impelled him to drive into an inner-city when Martin Luther King was killed and say, “My brother was also killed by a white man,” and asked that there be love and compassion, not revenge. It is hard to dance between anger and love. In this world that is unfair and unjust, it is so much easier to fall victim to anger’s righteousness. My father had reason to curse the fates, but he resisted that course. He chose a path that found wisdom in pain and in so doing demonstrated empathy for those who hailed from different nations, social classes, ethnicities or faiths.
I think his memory lives because we each yearn for examples of those who go forward in the face of tragedy. Politics results in compassion and the most important of these is compassion. At the City Club of Cleveland the day after Martin Luther King was killed, he said, “We must recognize that this short life can either be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course, we cannot banish it with a program nor with a resolution. But we can perhaps remember, even if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers and sisters, that they share this same short moment of life, that they seek, as we do, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Sure this bond of common faith, this bond of common good, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn at least to look at those around as fellow men and fellow women, surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts countrymen once again.” Thank you for putting on this remembrance. [applause]
JOHN SHATTUCK: Kathleen, thank you so much for those beautiful, moving remarks to start our conference. I’m John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and it’s my privilege to introduce the first panel of this historic 40th anniversary conference. Let me echo Paul Kirk by saying how honored the Kennedy Library is to host the conference and how wonderful it is to be able to welcome Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy here amongst us. Ethel, thank you so much.
Our first panel will take us right to the heart of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign: what motivated him to run, how was the campaign organized, what was happening in the primary states, how did RFK respond to the mood of the country and how did the country respond to him? And to answer these questions, we have an extraordinary panel of speakers who were with Robert Kennedy in this historic moment and have gone on to make their own marks on history.
Let me introduce them starting with the two speakers to my left and coming at the end to John Seigenthaler. Gerard Doherty ran Robert Kennedy's campaign in Indiana, the first primary state in the campaign. Gerry is a distinguished member of the Kennedy Library Foundation Board of Directors. He’s a Massachusetts state representative and former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, who also served as Senator Edward Kennedy’s campaign manager in 1962, and Jimmy Carter’s New York State presidential campaign director in 1976, and now practices law in Boston.
Peter Edelman was at Robert Kennedy’s side as his key adviser throughout his Senate career and his presidential campaign. He joined Senator Kennedy’s staff after serving as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. He’s the author of Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope. And he teaches at the Georgetown University School of Law.
Rafer Johnson was a close friend and adviser to Robert Kennedy who traveled with him throughout the 1968 campaign and was with him in Los Angeles the night of the California primary. An Olympic decathlon gold medalist in 1960 and the bearer of the Olympic torch in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Rafer founded the California Special Olympics in 1969 and is a member of the International Board of Special Olympics.
Dolores Huerta -- I’m sorry, Dolores, I didn’t mean to skip over you -- co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez in 1962 and has dedicated her life to fighting for better working conditions for people all over the country, especially farm workers. She was a strong supporter of Robert Kennedy and helped him win the California primary, and today she is the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which focuses on organizing and leadership training in low-income and under-represented communities.
Bill vanden Heuvel was Robert Kennedy’s special assistant during his time as attorney general. Later, he served as ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and is deputy US representative to the UN in New York. Since 1987, he’s been the president of our sister presidential library foundation, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. He’s the author of another leading book about Robert Kennedy, On His Own: RFK 1964-1968.
Last but certainly not least, the moderator of both of our panels in this conference today is John Seigenthaler. John was a distinguished journalist for the Nashville Tennessean when he joined Robert Kennedy’s staff in the Justice Department in 1961. He was deeply involved in the Kennedy administration’s civil rights struggles and was sent by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as his special representative to aid the Freedom Riders in their historic desegregation trip through the Deep South, where he was attacked by a mob of Klansmen in Montgomery, Alabama and badly beaten. John is one of our nation’s foremost journalists and founded the First Amendment Center in 1991 to promote national dialogue and debate. Please join me in welcoming to the stage of the Kennedy Library Gerard Doherty, Peter Edelman, Rafer Johnson, Dolores Huerta, Bill vanden Heuvel, and John Seigenthaler. [applause]

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