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
  • D. A. Christianson

    Indeed, I found him far too liberal then, young as I was. Now, I wonder. Same with brother Jack. for all their infirmities, which were many, they were men, and more, they were educated men, who made you proud to be their countrymen whether you agreed with them or not. Thank you for the reminder of what was, and if we are exceedingly lucky, may be again.

    Today? To give my answer to your question, nobody, not in the entire English speaking world. And that’s a major loss.

  • Kevin

    I did a double take in realizing how long ago this was. He was a great man. One thing that sets him apart from others is not only education, but passion and in particular a passion to make life better for others. The world would be a far better place today if he had lived and become president.

  • Suzanne

    Newt Gingrich, for all his flaws, is a very gifted extemporaneous speaker. Not so much poetic, but able to marshal a compelling, usually well-considered argument off the cuff.
    I say “usually” because he can go off the deep end and start raving about what-if-we-could-turn-all-our-brains-into-a-giant-hive-computer or whatever random thought tends to hit, but, well, the raw speaking talent is there.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “Manny, IT guy wants to know if you can tell me which posts this has happened on?”

    Anchoress, all of them. I already can’t respond to, nor can I even see this comment in your Sebellius Catch-22 Blog. I went into My Disqus and found your reply there. This only happens with you, not the other bloggers at Patheos. Am i the only one?

  • Kay

    I thought Pope Benedict was very gifted at extemporaneous speaking. I also loved his prepared speeches. I really miss him.

  • Barbara Bowman

    As I read your post, the first attribute I thought of was introspection. Without it, words – even educated words – are lack power. I’m not a terribly introspective person — I think it is difficult to cultivate in today’s world, so just reading Robert Kennedy’s speech struck me as several cuts above what we hear today.


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