Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), also known as RFK or Bobby Kennedy, was a younger brother of the American president John Kennedy. He was a Democratic senator from New York who ran for president in 1968. On the night he won the Democratic race in California Sirhan Sirhan killed him.
Kennedy wanted to end the Vietnam war. It was immoral: America, with its great strength and wealth, was killing unarmed Vietnamese women and children to support a corrupt and unjust government. America was destroying its own good name. He wanted to pull out of the war.
When his brother was president in the early 1960s Bobby was part of his inner circle and became Attorney General, the top law man in the country. At the time Bobby had a black and white, right and wrong, law and order way of looking at the world. His duty above all was to his brother.
Then one November afternoon in Dallas in 1963 all that changed. His brother was killed. His world was gone. Instead of turning to his Catholic faith to find comfort and to make sense of what was happening, he turned to the ancient Greek tragedies. Life, he learned, is bitter, a thing of chance. You cannot count on tomorrow.
There is a line from Sophocles that he often quoted:
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.
He was no longer the son of a rich family who had everything. He became one with those who suffered, whether because they were poor, came from another country looking for work or did not have white skin.
Because of this Bobby Kennedy was one of the few political figures who could cut across the divisions of an increasingly divided country: young and old, rich and poor, black and white. He was one of the few who seemed to understand both blacks and whites.
His view of America was neither that of Adam Smith nor Karl Marx. He said the wealth of the country:
measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile; and it can tell us everything about America except whether we are proud to be Americans.
He also saw himself morally. Better to die doing what is right than to live a long and comfortable life by making your peace with evil.
In late 1967 and early 1968 he was torn inside: He was against the war and yet the only way for him to end it was to oppose the president, who was from his own party. In the end he chose to put principle above party. It was his moral duty. Like Marcus Brutus.
McLuhan said, “He strove to do good by stealth and blushed to find it fame.”