Since I am home tending to a sick teenager today, I’ve had time to think, catch up with some email and chat a bit with friends. Many of the commentators in my last entry on my brother’s illness left lovely thoughts, prayers and poems, and I am very thankful and moved (and quite humbled) by the generosity of these people who don’t know us from Adam and yet offer comfort. Bless you. (And belated public thanks to Andrew Sullivan for his unexpected and kind linkage).
One poem stood out to me – it was familiar but I couldn’t place it:
and when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world shall be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
Very, very lovely lines that I may use on my brother’s behalf. My pal Greg reminded me that the line was from Romeo and Juliet, and recalled that Robert F. Kennedy had used the very same lines at the 1964 Democratic Convention, when referring to his slain brother, the President. That got us chatting about how much we had admired RFK. For those of you who read me and think “Brain-Dead-Nazi-Right-winger!” believing you have my number, you might be surprised to learn that I was, until pretty recently, a left-leaning Democrat, and that Robert Francis Kennedy was and still is a hero of mine. Were there anyone of his caliber still in a leadership position within the Democrat party, I might still be there.
Greg then reminded me of RFK’s particular grace and gift for speaking “off the cuff”, that it was Kennedy’s remarks to the campaign crowds immediately upon the murder of Martin Luther King that quite possibly prevented rioting, bloodshed and more tragedy. I re-read the speech and had to marvel, after wiping my eyes. A remarkable and moving tribute, given extemporaneously, it is brilliant in its scope, its personal revelation and historical appreciation and context. In a few short minutes, the man managed to gather himself together (and think of just how shocking it must have been, how un-nerving, to in an instant re-live his own trauma at the slaying of his brother, and then manage to be both wise and re-assuring. How courageous!). Here is just a bit of it:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “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.”
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love [emphasis mine - admin] — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.
And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Go read the speech (or you can listen to it if you like), and you will be amazed that Bobby Kennedy was able to so quickly draw on his own resources, to speak from his own experiences, and also to bring in the ancients. The benefit of a quick and gifted mind that has been well-educated, absolutely. But there had to be something in the man’s character, too, that allowed his thoughts to move toward what was good not for his party, or his own benefit, but for the country. I cannot think of anyone in public office right now who could pull this off today.
President Bush might have the right “instincts” insofar as thinking first of the nation…but he’d not have the words – he’d move quickly to action, and while action is good, the words need to come first. John Kerry could might or might not have the words, but his first instincts would be to exploit, rather than heal, and nothing in his record indicates he would take action. Bill Clinton, with his rhetorical gifts and quick mind might come closest, but I think even he – as smart as he is – would fall too quickly into his ingrained habits of sly self-promotion, and – Walt Whitman aside – he was never much for poetry. Hillary, when off-script lapses into schoolmarmish lectures punctuated with ‘”you knows”. She couldn’t do this. I think Condoleeza Rice would have all of it in her brain, but would not be able to bring it forth, not on the fly, not coherently.
Rudy Giuliani could approximate it; he could convey the “gist” of it, but not with this language, or with this history. John McCain is a rhetorical plodder; he couldn’t come near it. Ted Kennedy never had his brother’s mind, or his sensibilities.
RFK was just extraordinary. I can’t think of any member of the “black leadership” who could do this. I can’t think of anyone in journalism who could do it, either – no current man or woman of letters. Limbaugh, who can often be both extemporaneous and eloquent, could not approach what Kennedy did.
One reads this and one understands benefit of a vigorous and substantial education in the classics, as opposed to my son’s English class, which spent 4 weeks (!) on Tuesdays with Morrie. But RFK also must have had the gift of introspection, as well, and also a love of reading and poetry. I know he committed a great deal of poetry to memory; I’ve read that about him.
That speech was the speech of a man who habitually spent time alone in reflection and contemplation and -dare I say it – prayer. It’s all there; the evidence of it is there.
Perhaps he was a man of his time, a time when life moved a little bit less quickly, and down-time was not at such a premium, and so introspection was not such a luxury. Perhaps we simply do not take enough time for reflection and contemplation, anymore. We turn on Hardball, or Hannity, or Survivor, and it’s our loss.
How about it, can you think of anyone on the national scene who could pull this off, today?