Kevin Ellis: How might Robert Kennedy have changed the world?

This commentary is by Kevin Ellis, a writer and communications consultant who is a member of the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.

It has been 50 years since Robert Kennedy was gunned down in a hotel kitchen in California while running for president. Had he lived, he would have been 95 this November and struggling with the usual maladies. I was 9 years old when my mother woke me up that Saturday morning — crying.

I have spent the ensuing decades reading extensively about RFK and wondering how a guy so wholly different from most politicians would have changed the country and averted our current state. Since then, political idealists have searched for the next Robert Kennedy but always come up short and disappointed.

It is ancient history now. But Democratic presidential nominees from Walter Mondale to Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis to Clinton and Obama sought to fill the gaping hole in American politics created by Kennedy’s brutal assassination. Nothing ever quite worked. 

But the storyline remains. A once-in-a-lifetime political leader — in it for the right reasons — is murdered, and the country descends into war, corruption and cynicism. Some believe if RFK had lived, we could have avoided Vietnam, Watergate and built a center-left coalition for the next 50 years. Instead, we got Reagan.

America was riding high on its post-World War II wealth and arrogance. At our best and most generous, we rebuilt Europe after the war and created the American middle class and a powerful democracy. At our worst, we ignored racial discrimination, violence, poverty, and wealth disparity. In arrogance and fear, we plunged into a war in Vietnam because we feared a Russian takeover of the world. We allowed that fear to dominate our politics. The Kennedys were not innocent in this.

Then came the spasm of violence that killed President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the students at Kent State, and so many others. I have always believed there is a straight line from those deaths to the gun violence of today.

Kennedy was no saint. As attorney general under his brother from 1960 to 1963, he oversaw the wiretapping of Martin Luther King’s phone. He was a black-and-white law enforcement tough guy in the early years. He had a hard intolerance for what he thought was weakness in others.

But there was empathy in him that grew, especially after his brother’s assassination. He attacked childhood poverty, faced down the generals who wanted to attack Cuba with nuclear weapons, and broke with his Democratic president over the Vietnam War, opposing it not only on political grounds but morally as well.

In a speech at Kansas State University in 1968, he said:

“For we must ask our government, and we must ask ourselves: where does such logic end? If it becomes necessary to destroy all of South Vietnam to save it, will we do that too? And if we care so little about South Vietnam, that we are willing to see its land destroyed, and its people dead, then why are we there in the first place?”

With Robert Kennedy, there was a sense of possibility that the United States could live up to founding principles, that we could be a moral country. Asked what he would have done had he not entered politics, he answered that he would have been a juvenile delinquent or a revolutionary.

Born into a family of striving Irish immigrants with callous, demanding parents, there was no other route than public service. His father took care of the money via bootlegging and Hollywood.

What Kennedy saw was too often unjust and immoral. In a doomed 90-day run for the presidency, he found his voice on these issues of right and wrong. Poverty and hunger are unacceptable. He joined labor leader Caesar Chavez on his hunger strike in California for better wages for grape pickers. He went to the Mississippi Delta, Harlem, West Virginia and Indian reservations to meet and commune with the “other” America — the dispossessed and ignored — and returned to Washington as their voice.

His moral and political courage inspired generations of young people to enter public service. So when you see and read about legal services for the poor, Head Start, food stamps, Community Action, food shelves, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps — these and many other ideas were born in Robert Kennedy’s early 1960s orbit that continues to this day.

As he hurtled toward that California hotel kitchen in 1968, he attacked the moral rot that had taken over the country, “the poverty of satisfaction,” he called it. He said the gross national product shamefully counted air pollution, cigarette advertising, and the locks for our doors but not the strength of our families and the beauty of our poetry.

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things,” he said.

What politician would say that today? Bernie Sanders, for one.

Speaking to an audience of medical students, he was asked who would pay for the poverty programs he was proposing; he replied: “You are,” his point being that to whom much is given, much is expected.

In April 1968, the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Kennedy was in Indiana campaigning. Against the advice of advisers who feared for his safety, Kennedy insisted on speaking to the crowd in Indianapolis.

Kennedy spoke of the need for racial harmony, understanding, and tolerance on the back of a pickup truck. He ended by saying: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”

There was little violence in Indianapolis that night while many other cities burned from outrage and despair.

Less than two months later, Kennedy was dead, and the hopes of a country that could be idealistic and righteous and peaceful died with him.


For more on Kennedy, go to the Kennedy Library website and listen to the “Gross National Product” speech. Then read these three books: “RFK: His Life,” by Evan Thomas; “RFK: A Memoir,” by Jack Newfield; and “The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy,” by David Halberstam.


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