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RFK: A Reflection on True American Leadership
July 27, 2002
By Dwayne Eutsey

"At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet."
— RFK announcing his presidential candidacy, 1968

Robert F. Kennedy is a personal hero of mine.

For me, RFK (or Bobby, which seems more appropriate to me) embodied the best qualities of authentic American leadership. Until his abrupt murder, Bobby’s pragmatic idealism inspired a nation ripping itself apart to come Together - and it still speaks to us now in a time when corrupted, illegitimate power has such a stranglehold on our country.

Unlike what lamely passes for leadership today, Bobby was the real thing. The inclusive vision of America he proclaimed emerged from a conscience deepened by personal tragedy and moved by the suffering of oppressed people he encountered around the world. Instead of simply talking about compassion, Bobby demonstrated it. He was a true uniter: he brought together anti-war activists and veterans; Hispanics, inner city blacks, and rural whites; young and old; the affluent and the poor. And he was truly one of the most eloquent, impassioned political orators America has ever heard.

It’s easy to canonize Bobby as some sort of liberal saint, but I think to do so is to remove from him his most appealing and enduring trait: his humanity. Bobby’s humanity, as flawed and as noble as any character from the Greek tragedies he loved so much, defined his kind of “anti-political politics,” to borrow a phrase from Vaclav Havel, the former Czech dissident (and current Czech president). He was driven by neither focus groups nor ideology, but by a politics that grew from the heart.

As Ted Kennedy said in eulogizing his fallen brother, Bobby “need not be idolized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. [He should] be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

It’s this Bobby, the “good and decent man” who wanted to lead America back to its moral center, that I hope will shine through in a promising new television movie about him on FX later this summer. Perhaps, in stark contrast to what we currently have in the White House and on the Hill, “RFK” may help remind us that we should expect (or even demand) more of our leaders than that they look like someone we’d like to drink a beer with.

Perhaps it will remind us that our leaders should defend the principles of liberty that are the very foundation of our society. As Bobby said in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, our leaders should acknowledge that “debate and dissent are the very heart of the American process,” and that those who attempt to repress these American values do not understand what this country is all about.

Perhaps the movie will help us to recall that true leaders do not run away when our country is in danger; instead they stand with their fellow citizens as Bobby did on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. He was the only white public official who stood in a black neighborhood as riots erupted across America, and he helped to defuse the volatile shock of the crowd with these extemporaneous words:

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who will suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

Maybe it will remind us that there are values underlying authentic patriotism that run much deeper than flag-waving nationalism and economic self-interest, as when Bobby said:

“The gross national product ... measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

I know that’s a lot to expect from a television movie, especially one that will be broadcast on a cable network affiliated with arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch. However, despite the current darkness shrouding our political landscape, the spirit of Bobby, the heart of what he hoped for and believed in about America, still shines out like an eternal flame in this darkness.

And with that light to guide us, perhaps we can, to paraphrase Bobby, stop looking at the way things are and ask in despair “Why?” And instead we can start dreaming again of things that never were and dare to ask, “Why not?”

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