Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed 42 years ago this week. The killing brought a tragic end to his campaign for the 1968 Democratic nomination for the presidency. In the manner of famous people who never grew old, Kennedy became an icon, as well as a byword for other things - thwarted liberalism, social breakdown, “the Kennedy curse”. Yet more interesting than how he died is how he lived. In a short life of vivid moments, Kennedy brought ardour, daring and grace to public life - qualities that have been all too rare since.
His tragedies deepened his reflection and sharpened his perception of injustice. Some months after John F. Kennedy’s slaying, Jacqueline Kennedy gave Robert a copy of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. Kennedy read, underlined and quoted the passages of Greek tragedy. “In agony learn wisdom”, directed Aeschylus’ Herald in Prometheus.
It was a message Kennedy took to heart, often quoting Aeschylus’ injunction that “he who learns must suffer”. The New Yorker’s Jim Stevenson saw in him “a resident, melancholy bleakness”. Robert Lowell, the poet, noticed too. “Doom was woven in your nerves”, he wrote of Kennedy.
But as a man who had, in Homer’s words, suffered “loss on bitter loss”, Kennedy was alive to the suffering of others. It was an awareness which shaped his 1968 campaign. Dismaying his campaign managers, he would harangue middle class audiences with visions of rural deprivation, describing malnourished children with distended stomachs. To a courthouse audience in the San Joaquin Valley, Kennedy said: “Poverty is indecent. Illiteracy is indecent … And it is indecent for a man to work with his back and his hands in the valleys of California without ever having hope of sending his son on to college.”
It was a campaign of outraged conscience and Jacobin temper. With a bluntness no serious candidate could now afford, he went on Meet the Press and declared: “I am dissatisfied with our society. I suppose I am dissatisfied with my country.”
His concern over injustice was not confined to the United States. Kennedy’s best-remembered speech - setting aside his brief, adlibbed eulogy for Martin Luther King - is an address to students in apartheid South Africa. The event’s organiser, Ian Robertson, was banned for his impertinence, but those able to attend heard an impassioned appeal to shared humanity. Kennedy railed against “the illusion of differences which is the root of injustice and of hate and of war”.
He goaded conservatives who cited biblical authority for apartheid, asking: “What if God is black?” At a time when many saw developing countries as so many pawns on a Cold War chessboard, this was a daring approach to take.
Kennedy’s daring and energy revealed itself in acts of physical recklessness, as well as in his investigations into racketeering, his involvement in planning covert action against Castro and, ultimately, his campaigning on poverty. It was often frustrated by the tedium of the political process. Kennedy once told his aide Richard Goodwin, of Che Guevara: “You know, sometimes I envy the bastard. At least he was able to go out and fight for what he believed. All I ever do is go to chicken dinners.”
He escaped the narrowing that political life can often provoke, and Tobias Wolff’s description of John Kennedy in Old School could apply almost as well to Robert: “we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.” (Nixon, inevitably, “was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor.”)
Kennedy carried poetry and Greek plays in his briefcase. He would avoid seeing local pols and labour leaders but would, as staffer Tom Johnston remembered, “give Robert Lowell five hours”. He quoted Shakespeare and Robert Frost to the Democratic National Convention and John Buchan, the Scottish statesman, to reporters at the Ambassador Hotel two hours before he was shot: “Politics is still the greatest and the most honorable adventure.”
Would he have won, and spared America Nixon, and Watergate, and the worst years of Vietnam? The hypotheticals are ultimately futile and offer no comfort. Nevertheless, for all Kennedy’s faults, the unfinished life which was ended 42 years ago can still inspire admiration and regret.
At this anniversary, the best words are perhaps the ones Kennedy himself borrowed from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon - a play about another victim of assassination. Kennedy was speaking to a predominantly black crowd in Indianapolis. It had fallen to him to tell them that Martin Luther King had just been shot and killed. And unlike in dozens of other American cities, there was no riot in Indianapolis that night. Kennedy had said: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”