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Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope
Kerry Kennedy in Conversation with Heads of State, Business Leaders, Influencers, and Activists about Her Father's Impact on Their Lives
Read by Rory Kennedy
Read by Kerry Kennedy
Read by Peter Gallagher
Read by Catherine Keener
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Robert F. Kennedy staunchly advocated for civil rights, education, justice, and peace; his message transcended race, class, and creed, resonating deeply within and across America. He was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency and was expected to run against Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, following in the footsteps of his late brother John. After winning the California presidential primary on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was shot, and he died the following day. He was forty-two.
Fifty years later, Robert Kennedy’s passions and concerns and the issues he championed are — for better and worse-still so relevant. Ripples of Hope explores Kennedy’s influence on issues at the heart of America’s identity today, including moral courage, economic and social justice, the role of government, international relations, youth, violence, and support for minority groups, among other salient topics.
Ripples of Hope captures the legacy of former senator and U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy through commentary from his daughter, as well as interviews with dozens of prominent national and international figures who have been inspired by him. They include Barack Obama, John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, Alfre Woodard, Harry Belafonte, Bono, George Clooney, Gloria Steinem, and more. They share personal accounts and stories of how Kennedy’s words, life, and values have influenced their lives, choices, and actions. Through these interviews, Kerry Kennedy aims to enlighten people anew about her father’s legacy and bring to life RFK’s values and passions, using as milestones the end of his last campaign and a life that was cut off much too soon.
Thurston Clarke provides a powerful foreword to the book with his previous reporting on RFK’s funeral train.
BY KERRY KENNEDY
Think of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon. Each, in his own way, is firmly set in a certain era of American history. Yet as vibrant as they all were at the peak of their power and influence, none of these men could easily slip into the contemporary political world. Their leadership was unique to their time and place.
That conclusion does not ring true for my father, Robert Kennedy. His appearance is ever modern: the shaggy hair, the skinny ties, the suit jacket off, the shirtsleeves rolled. Beyond appearances, what is striking about RFK are the themes he returned to again and again—themes that still energize debate and resonate in our own time and place.
Think of the headlines over the past few years, and it is easy to hear Robert Kennedy’s voice speaking out in our country as he did fifty years ago—on the madness of gun violence, the shame of police brutality, the need for compassion in welcoming immigrants and refugees, the defiance of the easy call to war, and, where war has broken out, the moral necessity of seeking peace. One imagines him urging us to focus not only on stopping terrorism but also on understanding and addressing its root causes. He would encourage us to focus on the destructive force of hate, the disillusionment of young people, the inherent injustice of a criminal justice system that discriminates based on race and class and in which thousands go to jail simply because they are too poor to make bail—the New Jim Crow. And it is easy to think of RFK reminding us of the duty to address the struggles of those who are not in the headlines, the most vulnerable among us: farmworkers, small farmers, factory workers, people who have seen the jobs that supported them replaced by cheap labor or technology. He would also remember our duty to Native Americans and those suffering in the hollows of Appalachia, on the Mississippi Delta, and in the most destitute slums of our great cities.
Bobby Kennedy’s presence was grounded not only in policy, but most especially in values, values that never wavered, values that stand in high contrast to too much of our political leadership today: integrity, courage, faith, humanism, patriotism, all tempered by curiosity, children and dogs, laughter, fun, and, most especially, love.
Jeff Greenfield, RFK’s speechwriter, and Frank Mankiewicz, his press secretary, posited that Kennedy’s credo was “Get your boot off his neck.” Indeed, Robert Kennedy stood up to bullies throughout his life. As a grade school student he disdained gossip and meanness. As a member of the Harvard football team he refused to play away games unless the African American student on the team was allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the squad. He bravely took on Father Leonard J. Feeney, the anti-Semitic chaplain at Harvard who spewed hate, for insisting there is no salvation outside the Catholic church. Feeney was later excommunicated. Kennedy traveled to Israel in 1948 and advocated for US support for the new and beleaguered nation surrounded by enemies. As a law student he invited Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to speak at the segregated University of Virginia—and then successfully petitioned the UVA Law School to allow Bunche to speak before a mixed-race crowd. Unable to find a hotel in the area that would take Bunche, Bobby and Ethel invited Bunche to stay in their tiny home, where they endured a night of white supremacists hurling racist epithets and Molotov cocktails.
In the 1950s Kennedy worked for the Senate Committee on Investigations—for five months—during which he focused on how US allies were benefiting financially by selling goods to China, which, in turn, was using those goods to create the machinery of war and use it against US soldiers in Korea. His report was lauded as exemplary and as the only usable intelligence to come out of the committee chaired by Senator Joe McCarthy. When he wasn’t conducting his China research, Kennedy spent the remainder of his time on the committee fighting the excesses of the chairman and Roy Cohn, describing the senator’s insatiable need for publicity as though McCarthy were on a wild toboggan ride, addicted to the adrenaline rush, unaware and uncaring about the tree at the end of the hill. Kennedy later exposed the excesses that caused Cohn’s resignation and led to the end of McCarthy’s reign of terror. Asked a decade later by Peter Maas how he could have worked for Senator McCarthy, Kennedy responded, “At the time, I thought there was a serious internal security threat to the United States… and Joe McCarthy seemed to be the only one doing anything about it. I was wrong.”
Kennedy joined the Rackets Committee and pursued union bosses like Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa who were stealing from the rank and file. As attorney general, he stood up to Bull Connor, Governor John Patterson, Governor George Wallace, and other white supremacists on behalf of civil rights activists. When Prince Edward County, Virginia, sought to avoid desegregation by closing all its public schools, Kennedy opened the Prince Edward County Free Schools, imported volunteer teachers from across the country, and made sure that the African American kids would receive an excellent education while the case wended its way through the courts.
Whereas J. Edgar Hoover renounced arrested teenagers as “delinquents” and jettisoned them to jail, Kennedy saw children, mostly of color, were often the victims of a cruel structure that condemned them to life-destroying prison terms for petty crimes with little or no access to defense council. Kennedy obtained legislation to reform the juvenile justice system. His focus on poverty and his establishment, at the DOJ, of the Juvenile Delinquency Committee, as Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote in Robert F. Kennedy and His Times, the most insightful and well-researched biography of RFK, led to the establishment of “VISTA, Legal Aid, mental health centers, youth development projects, neighborhood services, and the foundation for what would become the War on Poverty.” For the first time in history, Kennedy ordered the Justice Department to resolve Indian land claims rather than fight them. As senator, his first act gained Puerto Ricans in New York access to the vote by offering voter registration forms in Spanish. He came to the aid of farmworkers in California, miners in West Virginia, African Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Native Americans across the country.
But to leave it at stopping the bullies would not do justice to Kennedy. On that terrible night when he told a crowd in downtown Indianapolis that their leader, Martin Luther King Jr., had been murdered, he included in his remarks a quote from Aeschylus: “To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.” Indeed, Kennedy focused much of his life on taming the savageness, and he also made gentle the life of the world.
I DID NOT SET OUT to pen a biography of Robert Kennedy. Many have been published, and there are more on the way. Instead, I sought to write a book not so much about Bobby Kennedy in history, but about people who, inspired by him, are influencing our world, fifty years after his death. Some knew him and worked closely with him. Others were not born when he died in 1968. But he touched all their lives in profound ways. They are women and men, white, black, brown, and mixed, they grew up in wealth and in poverty, in cities and on farms, in the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, the Southwest, the West, the West Coast, and abroad. They include four heads of state, actors, students, politicians of both parties, business leaders, television personalities, feminists, and leaders of women, Native Americans, farmworkers, and civil rights activists. They range in age from eighteen to ninety. Each has made a mark on our country or our world, and all consider Bobby Kennedy a profound source of inspiration.
Hillary Clinton famously compared herself to a Rorsach test, in which what you see tells you more about yourself than it does about her. In many ways that is true as well of Robert Kennedy. In our interviews, John Lewis described his empathy, Shirley MacLaine talked about his joy for life, and Marian Wright Edelman spoke about his tenderness with starving children.
The people I interviewed saw Kennedy through the lens of their own experiences, and the issues that are dearest to their hearts. Some of these issues were not on the front burner in the 1960s, yet Kennedy’s presence is nonetheless strongly felt by the leaders on these topics today: Al Gore on climate change, Gloria Steinem on the future of feminism, Tim Cook on the use of technology to address overwhelming social needs.
Others spoke about their lives in ways that were not directly involved with RFK, but which paralleled his values, and spoke to their own commitments for a more just and peaceful world. Tony Bennett told about being a pacifist who was drafted into the army in World War II, and found himself in a firefight during the Battle of the Bulge, refusing to shoot. Afterward, he and his companions marched into a nearby town where they emancipated prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp. Years later, while performing at the Super Bowl, Bennett refused to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which he considered a tribute to war, and instead intoned “America the Beautiful.”
Stefan Löfven, the prime minister of Sweden, grew up in the remote reaches of the country. His father disappeared before he was born, and his mother, unable to care for him but unwilling to give him up, placed Löfven in foster care but would not allow him to be adopted. He was raised by a loving couple, the mother a caretaker for the elderly and the father a lumberjack. After completing two years of college, he decided on a career as a steelworker, joined the union, and rose quickly to its presidency, where upon his political career was launched. Within six years, he was prime minister. Löfven spoke about the importance of creating a world in which ordinary, common people are treated with dignity in their working environments and are not abused by powers beyond their influence—a vision shared and championed by his hero, RFK. Soledad O’Brien spoke about growing up the daughter of immigrants, her father Australian and her mother Puerto Rican of Afro-Cuban descent. Her parents lived in Maryland, right across the Potomac from Virginia, where Mildred Loving (who was black) and Richard Loving (who was white) had been recently arrested and sentenced to a year in prison under antimiscegenation laws. Unable to lawfully marry in their own state, O’Brien’s parents were wed in Washington, DC, and moved to Long Island to raise their children. Having produced award-winning documentaries on being Latino in America and black in America, O’Brien spoke about the future of race in our country, and the all-important overlay of class when addressing racial justice issues—all topics of deep and abiding concern to RFK.
VIEWING PHOTOGRAPHS AND FILMS from Daddy’s 1968 presidential campaign fifty years ago brings back a flood of memories: images of people reaching out to him, almost desperate to touch him, while powerful men—professional football players and Olympic athletes—hold him back with all their might as crowds mobbed him, pulled him closer, insatiable. In defiance of gravity, he leaned over, leaned in, reached out with his full body, light, sinewy, muscular, as if to say with a full heart, “I am yours, we are one.” He never seemed frightened or ill at ease among the throng; he was just there, in the moment. The images also remind me of the aftermath: Daddy returning home, his fingers red and swollen, cuff links missing because of all the hands grabbing his, wanting to be part of him.
Since then, I’ve heard literally thousands of stories from people around the world, all saying what Robert Kennedy meant to them. Each story is different, but there is one common thread that made RFK so special: he reached deeply into the hearts of his audiences, and what he touched was the noble soul in each of them, and in us.
Robert Kennedy was a presidential candidate, a senator, the attorney general, his brother’s confidant and campaign manager, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, and a friend. But his most important role, as far as I was concerned, was that of father, to his brood of what would become eleven children, seven boys and four girls, spanning sixteen years.
As kids, my father made us read an hour a day. He loved poetry, and he read it aloud on campaign trips. We would memorize the lines and recite them Sunday nights around the dinner table: Kipling’s “If,” Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”
Books were everywhere in our home: floors, ceilings, shelves, bathrooms, closets, the attic, the basement, and every coffee table. The breakfast table was covered with daily newspapers: the Washington Post, the Washington Sun, the New York Times, the Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post. We subscribed to Time, Life, Look, Newsweek, US News & World Report, National Geographic, Harper’s, the Village Voice—and a strange magazine with a 3-D cover called Venture. WWD and Vogue occasionally found their way into the mix as well.
Perhaps the importance of current events in our house, Hickory Hill, was most reflected in the first room on the left as you walked into the large center hall colonial where we lived in McLean, Virginia. It was dominated by an RCA Victor and known as “the TV room.” With all those children, rules were important. Whoever turned on the TV first decided what channel to watch. But any program, at any time, could be trumped by the news. As a result, the news was almost always on.
While breakfast was for reading the papers, dinner was all about content. Daddy would go around the table, asking each of us to tell one thing we read in the paper that day. Seating became strategic, as no one was permitted to repeat an article previously cited. Next came a discussion on the issues, when Daddy would ask our opinions and a lively debate would ensue. The only one I recall in detail was, if he ran for president, should we abandon Hickory Hill in favor of the White House—at eight years old, I was fine with the campaign but firmly against the move. Current events were followed by educational games—Botticelli, a history game, and Ghost, a spelling game, were standards. Then, after dessert—and there was always dessert (usually vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce)—Daddy took down the Children’s Bible and read aloud from the Old Testament. After dinner we played games: hall hockey in the front hall or freeze tag on the staircase landing. Before bedtime, we gathered in front of the lighted crucifix or around our parents king-size bed, recited the Rosary, and went off to sleep.
Many children of politicians dislike the campaign trail, but we loved campaigning because Daddy made it fun. He took us to the Bronx Zoo, where we fed the elephant, then rafting on the headwaters of the Hudson River, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, and, later, to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where we played with neighborhood kids, and to the World’s Fair in Queens. When Daddy ran for president, he took us to Disneyland—every kid’s dream! There’s a great photo of Chris and Max on a rocket ship ride with Daddy and John Glenn—who else!
Most of my memories with Daddy involved exercise. In Virginia, we rode horses from Hickory Hill onto trails in back of the CIA, played chase-one-chase-all on the roof of the barn, kick-the-can with a tree for base, had relay races in the pool, round robins on the tennis court, and, nearly every day, played football. When Daddy was quarterback, the girls had actual roles in the game, and were not consigned to the usual hike-the-ball and flood-the-zone.
Winter found us skiing in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire; Stowe, Vermont; and Sun Valley, Idaho. I remember coming up to the top of Bald Mountain on the Warm Springs chairlift, the wind howling, the woolen blanket frozen to my stretch pants, crying for hot chocolate. And Daddy patiently removing my leather lace-up boots, pulling off my two pairs of woolen socks, slipping off the stockings beneath, and carefully, lovingly taking my frostbitten toes between his warm hands and rubbing until I was warm enough to put it all back together, ski down the mountain, and then repeat the process.
One time we went skiing in Lake Placid. As usual there was a large entourage, all the more so with skis, boots, poles, and the accoutrements of the sport. In addition, our family had a habit of sleeping with all the windows open and a large three-foot fan at the foot of the bed, so there were a half-dozen large fans added to the luggage. Soon after we had sorted rooms, unpacked the bags, and gone off to sleep, Daddy learned that the hotel enforced restrictions based on race. We stuffed our gear back in place, buttoned our parkas over our pajamas, then drove through a blinding blizzard to the only hotel that could accommodate our brood and was free of Jim Crow. After a brutal day of campaigning and travel, and in the face of a snowstorm, it would have been easy for Daddy to let it go, just for the night—but his integrity never wavered. And rather than making the move feel like an enormous burden (which it must have been, on some level, with all those kids), Daddy transformed the evening into a great adventure, full of fun.
Summers we were based in Hyannis Port. My earliest memories are of that sweet anticipation, waiting for the air force helicopter to land on Grandpa’s lawn, then racing down the hill with a flood of siblings and cousins, jumping into Daddy’s outstretched arms while the Shrivers ran for Sarge and Caroline ran to Uncle Jack, Kara and Teddy ran for Uncle Teddy and Steven ran to Uncle Steve. Daddy always took us for a dip in the ocean before breakfast. We swam, sailed, raced, and dragged in a long line knotted with orange life preservers behind the Resolute, our Wianno Senior. We dug for clams on Egg Island, climbed the break wall, fished for scup off the pier, and picnicked on the beach. Grandpa was bedridden in those years after a series of massive strokes. We spent weeks creating and practicing plays for his birthday and, despite the fact that we had no acting talent and couldn’t possibly carry a tune, Daddy always seemed delighted by the results.
The highlight of the summers were the rafting trips out west. We rode horses at dude ranches and then ran the rapids on the Green, the Yampa, the Snake, and the Colorado Rivers. Daddy read poetry around the campfire and calmed my fears that bats would make nests in my hair as we slept beneath the stars. After downing our lunch of hot dogs and potato chips, Daddy took us to find a cliff and we would all jump off—an early lesson in mustering the courage to overcome fear. He taught us to fish and kayak, and he encouraged us to float down the river in life preservers, bobbing along like so many rubber ducklings.
One day we heard a mournful whine high up on a cliff in the Grand Canyon. Daddy scaled a ridge and rescued the ugliest, mangiest starving chihuahua mutt on earth. The poor thing had fallen off a raft days earlier and had been left to fend for itself. Daddy carefully wrapped the shaking, biting, barking mongrel in a towel and gave her carefully to me. From that day forward, “Rocky the Rockhound” never left my side.
People sometimes ask if I felt forced to work on social justice. Daddy made everything he did so much of an adventure, we didn’t see his work as a duty. Daddy didn’t press us to take up causes. That’s why one dinner stands out. Mummy and all the kids were sitting around the table at Hickory Hill, eating what we wanted and passing around second helpings. Meanwhile, Daddy had been on a trip to the Mississippi Delta for the Hunger Committee of the US Senate. Suddenly he appeared in the doorway, and the room became silent. He said “I’ve just been to a part of this country where three families live in a room this size—we’ve got to help those children.” He then went to the secretary of agriculture, held hearings, worked with Marian Wright, and expanded the food stamp program.
When he wasn’t playing with us, Daddy sat upstairs in his study, working in the one room of our sprawling house that none of his children could storm into unless it was a matter of utmost urgency. I now know that his big brown desk was where he wrote his books, important speeches, and legislation.
One particular day is etched in my memory. All I knew was that I needed my father’s immediate attention. My brother Michael and I were reenacting World War II in the ancient magnolia tree that dominated the sloping backyard of Hickory Hill. As usual, Michael demanded he be the victorious American, whereas I, eighteen months younger, weaker, and not nearly as good a shot, was again assigned the lesser role of the doomed German. The branches were so perfectly spaced that we boasted not one but two tree houses, with the Americans holding the more elaborate fort dominating the top branches. I vainly scaled upward as my brother lobbed down volley upon volley of magnolia pods, which eerily resembled hand grenades but felt more like boulders as they bounced off my head. After taking one direct hit too many, I scrambled out of the tree and ran for the house, bounding up the red-carpeted stairs and bursting into my father’s study without even pausing to knock. Tears were streaming down my face and the white satin bow atop my platinum curls, a daily fixture, was hopelessly askew.
My father turned from the desk as I tumbled into his arms. He hugged and kissed me, and told me he loved me. As I recounted my woes, Daddy wiped away the tears and told me to go fetch Michael. I knew right then I’d be saved from this horrendous assault, and that justice would prevail. After all, my father was always fair, not to mention having been attorney general of the United States. When we returned, Daddy told me I could not interrupt while Michael gave his side of the story. Then Michael had to listen while I told my side. These many years later the details are fuzzy, but I know it was hard and irritating. Even at age five or six, however, I was forced to accept that I wasn’t all right, just as my brother was not all wrong. Ultimately, Daddy made us kiss and make up, and he sent us to our rooms to read for an hour.
As an adult, I recognize the lessons my father taught us as children mirrored the very beliefs he wanted the entire nation to embrace: we must build a system of justice that enjoys the confidence of all sides; that peace is not just something to pray for, but something each of us has the responsibility to create, daily; and that we must muster the courage to face the truth about ourselves as well as about those we perceive as enemies.
I think there was no quality my father admired more than courage, save perhaps love. I remember after dinner one night my father picked up the battered poetry book that was always somewhere by his side and read aloud Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” We listened aghast to the story of a group of soldiers whose commanding officer orders them to ride into an ambush, knowing they will be slaughtered—yet they still obey the command. My father then explained that he and my mother were going on a trip and challenged us to a contest to see who could best memorize the poem while they were away. I did not win that contest—Courtney did—but four lines still remain with me:
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Why would a father ask his ever-expanding brood of what became eleven children to memorize a poem about war and slaughter? I think there were three reasons: He wanted to share with us his love of literature. He wanted us to embrace challenges that appear daunting. But most of all, he believed it was imperative for us to question authority, and to learn how those who fail that lesson do so at their own peril. Now, coming upon fifty years after Robert Kennedy’s last campaign, those are also among the lessons I think he would have liked to impart to all Americans. We face daunting challenges both nationally and globally. But we must rise to those tasks armed with courage, faith, love, and an abiding commitment to justice, yet girded with a healthy sense of skepticism.
So how did Daddy influence the work I do today? My parents didn’t separate their home life from Daddy’s work. There were always Justice Department lawyers, administration officials, and social justice activists at Hickory Hill to see Daddy, for parties, and to play with us, especially on weekends. The civil rights movement was in full swing when I was a little girl, and when I learned to tie my shoes, I was careful to make sure that if I put on the left one first, I would tie the right one first, because I didn’t want anything to be unfair. I think growing up with three sisters and seven brothers, and being the seventh down the line, makes one appreciate human rights at a very young age. My mother used to pile six or seven of us into her convertible, along with a football and a few dogs, and we would often go visit my father at the Justice Department. I had a special affinity for his office, as my godfather, Carmine Bellino, and my godmother, Angie Novello, worked with Daddy, and I especially loved to see them. After one visit, Daddy wrote me a letter:
Today was an historic day, not just because of your visit, but because, over the objections of Governor Wallace, two negroes registered at the University of Alabama. It happened just a few minutes ago. I hope these events are long past by the time you get your pretty little head to college.
Love and Kisses,
Imagine the idealism of a man who, having sent in the National Guard in order to protect James Meredith, could declare, only five years later, with heartfelt conviction, “Forty years from now we will have an African American president of the United States.” In some measure because of the tenacity and daring of his work at the Department of Justice, that prediction came true when Barack Obama was sworn in as president.
Between the time Daddy wrote me that letter and the time I went to college, many events had passed. In almost every way I had an ideal childhood. But it was punctuated by a series of horrors that threw my world into chaos again and again.
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