Eulogizing RFK

Good morning, it’s Thursday, June 8, 2017. Forty-nine years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy was laid to rest on a green hillside near one of his two older brothers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Many trees have been felled producing paper for the vast archive of books written about the Kennedys. Much of this literature is hagiographic, some ferociously critical. Occasionally, authors are dispassionate about this star-crossed political family. Whatever your politics, however, as I wrote on this occasion five years ago, there’s a simple truth about this clan: The sons of Joseph and Rose Kennedy devoted their lives to public service.

In began during World War II when Joe, Jack, and Bobby Kennedy answered their nation’s call to arms. Joe died flying a dangerous combat mission in Europe and Jack served heroically in the Pacific. Although Bobby was only 16 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he enlisted in the Navy before his 18th birthday.

On June 8, 1968, the nation was riveted by the sight of the youngest Kennedy brother delivering RFK’s eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

On June 28, 1963, while addressing the Irish parliament during his historic trip to his ancestral home, President Kennedy charmed his hosts by saying, “This is an extraordinary country. George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said, see things and say: Why? But I dream things that never were and I say: Why not?”

It was a nice thought, although it’s unclear whether Shaw was really “speaking as an Irishman” when he wrote those lines. (They come from his post-World War I compendium of plays called “Back to Methuselah.”) That said, Shaw’s prescience was impressive: Three years before the killing of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand pushed Europe into the First World War, Shaw wrote, “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”

The Kennedys did not let that happen. After JFK was slain, RFK turned his brother’s Dublin throwaway line into a brief prose-poem that inspired a generation of men and women from Los Angeles to South Africa. And on June 8, 1968, Edward M. Kennedy turned it into Bobby’s epitaph.

Whether they were Democrats, Republicans or independents, Ted Kennedy’s fellow Americans couldn’t help but feel pangs of empathy as they watched him speak at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on that sad Saturday. His voice cracking with emotion, Teddy ended his elegy this way:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. [He should] 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.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

“Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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