I’m not the type of person who is prone to hero worship. Witnessing people screaming hysterically during rock concerts never sat well with me. Yes, I did see many a great group (the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, the Who, the Doors), yet my demeanor was always one reflecting inner peace rather than extreme exuberance.
I was offered tickets to Woodstock (yes, originally you needed tickets), but I demurred, excusing myself due to an imaginary work schedule. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I don’t appreciate music; I just prefer the experience on a quieter and more solitary level.
In the political realm, I feel much the same way. I lead first with my mind, then my heart. I look at the values of a candidate and if they coincide with mine, I support that candidate with conviction, not adoration. But it wasn’t always that way.
At a young age, I found myself glued to the television whenever President John F. Kennedy was speaking. Every press conference, speech and presidential pronouncement was met with rapt attention. During the presidential campaign of 1960, he was driven down Main Street of my small Connecticut city (Ansonia) in an open convertible and the minute I saw him, I was hooked.
President John F. Kennedy was charming, charismatic, extremely bright, self-deprecating, empathetic, funny and always entertaining. Just watching him address his constituents in his disarming manner gave all of us a good feeling about the future. I wasn’t the only person who felt that way; in fact, he was the only Democratic presidential candidate my parents ever voted for.
The day John Kennedy was assassinated was for me, at that time, the bleakest day I had ever experienced. It was announced over the loudspeaker in my high school that he had been shot. We poured out of the school and were met with a sea of weeping moms, weeping bus drivers, and even weeping teachers. The subsequently televised proceedings and funeral lasted several days and, in the end, I felt like I had lost a member of my own family. In a way, I had. It was increasingly hard to believe that things would ever get better.
With John gone, it was natural that the nation would turn its attention to his brother, Bobby. When I entered Fordham in the Bronx in 1966, he was my senator. My best friend, Bill, who would eventually work as an intern in his New York office, spoke so highly of the senator that I was forced to take notice. I always liked the younger Kennedy, but it wasn’t until June of 1966 that he earned my undivided attention. On the 6th of that month, he made one of the most incredible speeches I have ever heard. The speech I am referring to is his address to the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
The popular notion that Kennedy had evolved dramatically and had become an outspoken advocate for civil rights and the elimination of poverty was confirmed for me, as I listened to this astounding speech. He boldly called out the South African government’s policy of apartheid and stated, “The essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer—not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.”
In words that are as true today as they were then, he called upon the younger generation to fight for a “new order of things” but to be wary of four pitfalls: 1) the overwhelming feeling of futility, 2) giving up your ideals in the name of expediency, 3) timidity, and 4) comfort.
Living up to his advice, two years later, Robert Kennedy abandoned all timidity and comfort and ran for the office of president of the United States. I must confess that my admiration for him at this point mirrored that of the most star-struck teenager at a Beatles concert. I was hooked. I believed in him and I believed in his agenda. No longer would America stand by while people are suffering. RFK called on us to seek “a newer world” where our enemies are not each other, but poverty, injustice, prejudice, violence and ignorance.
His campaign was the most inspiring political adventure of my life. Rather than travel west with the national campaign, I stayed in New York and went door to door for him, preparing for the upcoming New York State primary. Kennedy won the California primary and seemed destined to win the nomination and the White House. All was good until it wasn’t.
On June 6, 1968, two years to the day after his speech in South Africa, Robert Kennedy died the victim of an assassin’s bullet. Just like it had five years earlier, it felt personal. All my hopes and dreams of an America that would finally promote the values that I believed in disappeared in a flash.
Although we lost the person Time magazine called “The Last American Hero,” many of us who believed in Robert Kennedy kept the faith and kept striving to bring about a more just and humane world. We kept in our hearts John Kennedy’s words: “The energy, the faith, the devotion we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” But our efforts have not always yielded fruit. In fact, some say they never did.
In a recent book by Steven Brill titled “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–-and Those Fighting to Reverse It,” it is suggested that we, as a country, have been on a downward spiral for the last half-century. Brill paints a dark picture, tracing America’s fall from its principles over the last half century, beginning in 1967. He believes our core values of meritocracy, innovation, due process, free speech, and even democracy itself is all in jeopardy today under Trump.
Our abandonment of core values was never more starkly illustrated for me than when I heard the news this week that our government was taking thousands of children away from families seeking asylum and herding them into cages. Policies such as these do not reflect the America I know and love. But what can be done to stop it?
Robert Kennedy would urge us today, just as he did the students in South Africa a half-century ago, to take responsibility and make our voices heard. He would be right. If we don’t make the case for humanity, especially during our bleakest hours, then who will?