Remembering Bobby Kennedy and Missing Great Oratory

Today is the anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy. On Facebook, Bishop Christopher Coyne posted this quote from him:

“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”

Something to ponder in a world where extremism is become commonplace.

We’ll not see the like of RFK again, to our detriment. I don’t say this because I think he was an especially great man, but he was a great student and a great rhetorician. Great rhetoric has power; power to sway, power to inform. More importantly great rhetoric has power to uplift and unify. As I wrote in First Things:

Great oratory is about more than being able to smoothly read a teleprompter, or sufficiently rehearse (or over-rehearse) a bit of rhetoric. Great oratory requires both a love of ideas and the words that bring them forth and make them seem not just plausible but noble, not just noble but unstoppable. Great oratory can so enlarge a thought that everyone listening wants to ride on its wings to the soaring heights. Could Winston Churchill have inspired Britain during World War II with some mealy, designed-not-to-give-offense sentence promising mere protection?

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . .

Fine structure; powerful imagery, delivered in a voice full of certitude: great oratory.

I think what is missing from our current crop of gushers and gasbags is the ability to find poetry in their texts, or even to purposely include it. Whether this is because there is something lacking within them or because they believe their audiences too stupid to appreciate a well-struck image or relate to metaphor, I cannot say. These are all highly credentialed people, but I am not sure that is the same thing as being broadly educated.

We have no one in leadership the country — no one before our eyes, anyway — who can manage an impromptu speech that can be personal yet authoritative; no one who can draw on his or her resources and pull out a few lines of poetry that speak to a moment. Meaningful rhetoric over empty platitudes, slogans, spin and soundbites.

Martin Luther King could do it. RFK could do it. Who is left? Who can do it, today?

I wrote this in October of 2004:

[. . .while looking through comments about my brother's entrance into hospice] 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:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

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.”

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 pain, 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 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 gifted, 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 Clinton, 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.

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 have read that he committed a great deal of poetry to memory.

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. It’s our loss.

How about it, can you think of anyone on the national scene who could pull this off, today?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Viola Jaynes

    Anchoress, what a wonderful and important post. I just listened to RFK’s speech and I have to agree with you – it is remarkable! I’m not sure anyone nowadays could pull this off. He was such a young man, yet filled with wisdom beyond his years.

    That poem is also one of my favorites and therefore I have it as part of my blog title.

  • dinobillyharley

    The fact that there are no comments yet speaks volumes about the answer to your question. Another RFK currently on the scene? No way, but I predict NPR and the NY Times will start dropping references to him into their coverage of Barack Obama very soon. As far as past persons with RFK’s gift, there was MLK, Churchill, Lincoln…not too many. A tragic loss in that hotel kitchen on June 6, 1968, when the course of history was changed. Note that it was perhaps the first Islamic terrorist attack on American soil. Has anyone ever examined that angle?

  • KIA

    Boy what a great post Anchoress! I was never aware of that RFK speech so glad to know of it now. One guy I think who has the potential to pull of a speech like that is Tony Blair. If he really does become a Catholic, and is nourished by the Eucharist, his “misguided life” issues on stem cells, etc. will fade fast. He will see the light, and when Tony “gets it”, yes, I think the world may see another RFK and or Churchill. Blair has a lot of the right stuff, I think. I also think Alito and John Roberts of the Supreme Court, if they spoke much publicly, would blow most of us away.

    Other than that, I know a few Catholic priests, and a pope, who could pull it off, but I don’t think you are looking for those suggestions. Fulton Sheen sure had the love & gifts for the classics, truth, eloquence, and the “doings of the world.”

    Congrats to Buster!

  • March Hare

    Hard to believe, but Bobby Kennedy was born the same year as my mother. Comparing her education to mine–and she did not go to college–is humbling enough. When I see how much less ~my~ children have learned of the “classics,” I’m afraid!

    And that is probably the reason no one from my generation could bring in the classics or faith or family and tie to a nation in shock and mourning. My generation does not have the background. My generation demanded education that was “relevant,” and our teachers and professors cowardly gave in. After all, there’s a lot more effort required in teaching “Romeo and Juliet” than in teaching “Nickel and Dimed.”

    My first thought was Pope Benedict could do this–again, he’s 78, the same generation as RFK and my mother.

  • ELarison

    As usual a great post. Thank you for your willingness to share your thoughts. I never heard this RFF speech before. I plan on using it at my church in the future.

    By the way–Paul Potts won the competition in Britain–I just heard from my sister-in-law in England.

  • Bour3

    I suppose you’ll never tire of posting hagiographies of Kennedys, I certainly tire of reading them.

    But a repost? Seriously. Get help.


  • fzavis

    I hope Buster didn’t get too mucy indoctrination about Global Warming

  • Jeanette


    Since you don’t like reading about the Kennedys and think it’s terrible the Anchoress did a re-post of a great essay, I have a question for you.

    Did the Anchoress stand beside you and force you to read the post? Because if she did I’d like to know how you pulled it off since I’d dearly love to meet this wonderful woman.

    Otherwise, why did you read it if you don’t like it?

    It’s her blog and she can post or re-post whatever she wishes and she doesn’t have to clear it with you, me or anyone else.

    Great post, A! Most of us appreciate your work.

  • TheAnchoress

    Heh. J! I’M the one going thru menopause! ;-)

    Thanks for the defense – you are such a dear!

    But it’s okay if the fellow doesn’t like the post. I admit in my current, brittle, mood, I wanted to curl my lip and expose my teeth like a chihuahua I remember from my childhood (nasty dog), but hell – if he wants to grouse, let him grouse. He’s not the first to tell me to “get help,” and he won’t be the last.

    And it’s not like I ain’t a little nuts just lately!

  • Viola Jaynes

    Jeanette, I have to agree with you. Some people enjoy complaining about something, I suppose.

    I am glad you re-posted it Anchoress, since I’ve never seen this speech before. Even though I’ve been in this country many years now, I did miss a lot in school because I could not speak English yet. I enjoyed the speech very much and particularly because he quoted one of my very favorite poems.

    I hope you will get to feeling more like yourself very soon again! :-)

  • Hubbard


    It was a great speech from RFK, but I’m less certain about how good a man he was. All through his life he was a political chameleon. His first job in Washington was as an aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (he lost a struggle to be his legal counsel to Roy Cohn); as JFK’s Attorney General, RFK approved of J. Edgar Hoover’s bugging of Rev. King’s home. Perhaps the real RFK is the man who gave that wonderful speech and tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.; perhaps the real RFK is the aggressive snoop; probably the real RFK was a combination of these things. Which aspect of his personality would have dominated his later life is a question that can never be answered, but let’s be careful about putting a halo on him.

    As for a speech, both with depth and off the cuff, perhaps Newt Gingrich—another deeply flawed but potentially great man.

  • TomGrey-Liberty Dad

    I was about to suggest Fred Thompson, but Tony Blair is really the best alive in English, today.
    Altho I strongly disagree with a lot of his big gov’t stuff, he’s been solid on Iraq and against Saddam and in favor of human rights.

    Great speaking RFK, killed when I was in 6th grade, was not nearly as good a man as JFK, I fear. But flawed as he was, like Churchill, at his best he was indeed great.

    Thanks for the republish.

    Have you seen Dawn Eden’s book?: The Thrill of the Chaste.

    Former rock & roll Jewish Journalist becoming a Catholic, now joining a DC anti-promiscuity group.

  • nynz

    I believe RFK and Reagan had a televised debate with a group of international students. Has anyone seen it – or where one might find it?