On President's Day, let's take a moment to remember a man who never was president but should have been. Bobby Kennedy's campaign for the 1968 Democratic nomination lasted just 82 days before he was shot in a hotel kitchen while reaching to shake the hand of a dishwasher. He may have been the last American politician who had the courage to tell us what we needed to hear, not what he thought would get him the most votes.
A couple of weeks ago I showed my students the iconic video of Robert Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, the evening that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
I'm teaching a college geography course titled "Introduction to the City," and I was covering the state of American and European cities following World War II. You can't talk about that period without discussing the urban race riots of the '60s, and you can't talk about any of that without talking about RFK.
So, that was the entry point that connected Kennedy to my course, but I wanted to show my students that speech for another reason. I don't think any person who wants to consider themselves to be educated in this country can be ignorant of that speech. It is, in my mind at least, the single best extemporaneous political speech in the nation's history. Lincoln may have done better at Gettysburg, but he wrote it down first.
What strikes me about the language of Bobby Kennedy's speech is its honesty and sincerity of expression. You get the idea that this was Bobby Kennedy. No jargon. No appeal to hot button issues. It's easy to forget that he was in the middle of a hotly contested race for the presidential nomination and that this was supposed to be a campaign stop. But you get the sense that he's speaking to hold his country together, not to find cheap political advantage in the moment.
And then, of course, there's the substance. He appeals to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" (without ever needing to use that phrase), but he does it with the gravitas of all that had come in the tumultuous eight years before that moment.
Kennedy told the Indianapolis police chief, who had warned him against going to the corner of 17th and Broadway, "I could take my wife and family and we could sleep in the middle of the street at 17th and Broadway and there would be no problem. If you can't do that, it's your problem." He requested that no police accompany him.
When you view that speech, you'll notice he's fingering a piece of paper as he talks. Those are the notes handed to him by his staff. RFK had some of the best speechwriters in the business, but he never looks at those notes. Instead, he speaks somewhat haltingly at first and then with more confidence, as he knows he is making a connection with his audience. He quotes Aeschylus by heart.
There were militants at the back of that crowd ready to start a riot, but Kennedy's speech was so powerful that they just went home. Riots erupted in cities all over America, but not in Indianapolis.
This wasn't just a magnificent performance in an extraordinary moment. Kennedy spent much of that brief campaign both wowing and befuddling his audiences and his staff. When he addressed a crowd of farmers in the Midwest, he mocked his own lack of knowledge of farm policy and talked about urban poverty instead. He spent valuable campaign days on an Indian reservation in South Dakota where he knew virtually nobody would vote. On college campuses, he argued openly with his audiences and said things he knew would invoke boos.
A really good book on this is The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke. He notes several examples of RFK's sharp, playful, often sardonic wit, and then makes this cogent observation about that: "Much of [RFK's] humor was based on the premise that the rituals and insincerities of a political campaign were absurd and that his audiences were too smart to be fooled by them." Exactly.
I thought of all that today as I received my third email of the day from a candidate running for something or other. It's from a fellow Democrat, but the language is hollow, riddled with clichés and punch lines. It could have just as easily come from a candidate on the other side; it just uses liberal jabs and clichés instead of conservative ones. This message was from a candidate who is afflicted with an especially acute form of saccharin insincerity, but while a little worse than most, it was pretty much par for the course.
People don't believe politicians when their language sounds as if it were polled and focus-grouped to death. What we get, almost always, is language that is trying to chase us down, tackle us and shout our own thoughts back into our unwilling ears. What we need is language that makes us look at our world differently.
What we need is a new language of politics. Words that originate from the mind and the heart of the speaker, that treat the audience as if it is a group of thinking people who can handle the truth or, at least, the speaker's best reckoning of the truth.
We also need sentences that don't pander. I have this theory that people are actually longing to be told something they don't want to hear, just because it will prove to them that they are being respected and not coddled.
There aren't any Bobby Kennedys out there at any level of politics these days. President Obama comes closest, but his cool reserve summons up RFK's older brother more than Bobby himself.
I'm listening for a politician who respects us enough not to pander. The truth? We can handle the truth. We need politicians who will tell it.