RFK's Collected Works Provide Powerful Lessons For Today

The inspirational words and actions of the murdered 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy came alive once more during a book lecture on April 10 by his eldest child Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and biographer Richard "Rick" Allen at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

rfk richard allen edwin guthmanThe speakers, drawing from  RFK: His Words For Our Times, a 480-page book republished last year, provided a compelling and entertaining discussion of why the senator exemplified leadership qualities of enduring value to the public.

RFK, who launched his presidential campaign in March during the war-torn year of 1968 in a challenge to the Democratic incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, faced a stressed and angry electorate comparable to those of today, the speakers said. 

His memorable method included appeals to the public's better nature along with a daring and at times courageous willingness to travel to opposition locales. "RFK had a predisposition to go into hostile crowds," said Allen, a media executive and longtime political aide. "He constantly sought opportunities to wade into crowds that were not friendly."

Townsend, a professor at Georgetown Law Center and a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, shared several examples of how such actions won over crowds. One such time was in 1966 when Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the University of Mississippi Law School. Kennedy, by then a U.S. senator representing New York, had been enormously unpopular in Mississippi and the rest of the Deep South three years previously as Attorney General under his brother John's presidency by leading the Justice Department's legal efforts to require integration and African-American voting rights efforts in compliance with federal court orders. 

Huge public opposition resulted in just a narrow 5-4 vote by the university's regents to permit the RFK speech to occur. The senator arrived with his wife, Ethel, holding hands, which surprised some onlookers who had come to think of him as an almost inhuman devil for trying to change the settled ways of segregation and voting restrictions.

The result by the end of the discussions at the school , the daughter recalled, was a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. "It was his view that if you talk honestly," she recalled, "you can make a difference."

The RFK book, originally published in 1992 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the senator's fatal shooting in 1968 in Los Angeles just after he won California's Democratic presidential primary, collects his major speeches. They began with his brief years as a journalist and his 1950s work as a U.S. Senate committee counsel kathleen kennedy townsend rick allen npc april 10 2019 img 6249helping senators lead hard-hitting investigations of Mafia members and their and allies who ran major labor unions in corruption fashion..

Most of RFK's words in the book are from his years as attorney general, senator and presidential candidate, with the goal of providing an intimate view of a wordsmith who achieved an enduring reputation for speaking persuasively to unify audiences even on such inherently divisive themes as war, peace, poverty and inequality.

"He was able to win over people," Townsend said, "not by criticizing them but by asking what kind of nation they wanted to have." 

She and Allen explained also RFK had a rare quality of holding seemingly contradictory ideas and acting on them in a positive way. One example was what they called "aggressive civility."

Another was "substantive celebrity," which Townsend described as using the Kennedy family's undoubted celebrity during the 1960s to try to achieve solid results in public policy.

"It was not power for power's sake," Allen  said, "but to help those Americans who needed representation."

Among Townsend's introductions to this world of politics, she recalled, was her attendance at organized crime hearings in the 1950s at the age of three and four. One of her father's targets was Frank Costello, whom Allen described as the head of the Genovese Mafia Family in New York and a known killer of at least five persons, while some said it was more than double that. 

Allen, who edited the book with Guthman, RFK's former press secretary at the Justice Department, recalled that RFK remained undaunted even after hearing that his Senate's work had prompted a threat that acid would be thrown in the eyes of his children to teach a lesson.

Townsend's mother would often take her to hearings instead of to a playground, said Allen (shown below at left).

"We learned early on," Townsend added, "that life was tough."

richard allen npc rfk event april 10 2019 jip photo img 6237As another lesson, she said, her father once returned from a trip to the Mississippi Delta to tell his children that he had seen some entire families living in homes only as big as their large kitchen at Hickory Hill in suburban Virginia, and that some of the children had bellies swollen from malnutrition.

"Do you know how lucky you are?" she recalled him saying after one such trip. "You have a responsibility. You have to do something for our country."

Kennedy was using the media, Allen said, to accompany him on trips such hidden poverty centers as the Mississippi Delta, Native American reservations and migrant worker camps. "He wanted America to see what he saw," added Townsend. The book is illustrated with photos and has a companion website with containing videos of memorable talks.

A major theme of the book and lecture is that such words and lessons are applicable today. Thus, the book opens with introductory essays on that theme by former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, plus five Nobel Peace Prize laureates, two Pulitzer Prize winners (including conservative Peggy Noonan, the principle speech writer for President Ronald Reagan), and others.

The talk concluded with a question-and-answer segment, with highlights excerpted in a news account shown below.

One matter that arose in conversation at a reception before the lecture but not during it was that Townsend and her brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were two of the family members of four prominent assassination victims during the 1960s to announce earlier this year that they support new official investigations of the slain leaders — Robert Kennedy, his brother rfk frank mankiewicz king assassination 1968John Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X — because of compelling evidence challenging official accounts of their deaths.

This editor and my guest, author Jefferson Morley, were two of the five dozen other signatories to the petition, which has led to formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee modeled on a similar movement created in South Africa after the apartheid era. The purpose? To establish truths, in both instances, without undertaking the necessarily controversial step of seeking prosecutions. The committee's website is here. The Justice Integrity Project maintains here a continually updated "Readers Guide to the RFK Assassination" referencing significant books and films illustrating all major points of view.

RFK's life and powerful legacy was the focus of the book and lecture, understandably enough. The book's publisher, the HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, maintains a website with video clips of major speeches.

These include Kennedy's announcement on the evening of April 4 to a horrified crowd in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated earlier that day in Memphis. In the adjoining photo, Kennedy (at right) is shown in an iconic photo by Lawrence Schiller (via Getty Images) conferring about the news on the airplane ride to Indianapolis earlier in the day with Frank Mankiewicz, his press secretary from 1966 on.

Local authorities had advised Kennedy even before the shooting that his campaign speech's locale might be too dangerous. Kennedy ignored the advice and stood on the rear of a flatbed truck to tell the nighttime crowd the news.

"For those of you who are black," Kennedy said, " and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."

"My own favorite poet was Aeschylus," Kennedy continued. "He wrote: 'In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'"

The RFK book editors Allen and Guthman noted:

Kennedy was a unique white public official in America able to address a crowd in a black neighborhood that tragic night and not encounter violence. He spoke as a recognized champion of the disadvantaged, and he carried the credibility of his family's tragedy; in fact, this night marked the first time he had referred publicly to his brother's shooting.

Whether Kennedy's appearance was a factor — and it seemed surely to have been — Indianapolis remained quiet while rioting broke out in 110 cities across the land, causing thirty-nine deaths, twenty-six hundred injuries, and tens of millions of dollars of property damage.

Our project (which took the accompanying photos of the lectures) attends many book launches and other lectures. This one was exceptionally useful, thought-provoking and otherwise worthwhile in addressing, as advertised, RFK's "words for our times."   


Contact the author This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Related News Coverage

April 10

National Press Club, RFK’s civility, eloquence a lesson for today’s politicians, daughter says, Chris Teale, April 10, 2019. Robert F. Kennedy’s ability to win over hostile crowds and be civil during debates would serve politicians well in the present day, his daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said at the National Press Club Wednesday evening.

Townsend said Kennedy’s willingness to take on difficult opponents, like mob bosses or hostile crowds, calling for civil rights showed he wanted to engage with everyone and use civility while doing so.

rfk richard allen edwin guthmanAlong with co-author and editor Rick Allen, she discussed their book, RFK: His Words For Our Times, which collates Robert Kennedy’s speeches and writings and puts them in the context of their time.

“He was able to win over people not by saying, ‘You’re selfish, you’re terrible,’ but by asking what kind of country you want to live in,” Townsend said of her father..

The book, re-released to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 1968 assassination, includes speeches he gave as attorney general, a U.S. Senator for New York and as a presidential candidate, as well as other writing. And given the current rancor surrounding the American political scene, Townsend and Allen said Kennedy’s words and actions are more important than ever.

Townsend recalled how he went to speak before pro-Communist crowds in places like Japan and Chile. In in the face of hostile crowds trying to drown out his speech, she said, he would welcome local leaders on-stage and debate issues with them. In Japan, Townsend said, his actions “rippled through Japanese society broadly and made him so popular it raised the level of respect for the United States immensely, enormously.”

As an elected official, Kennedy shed light on people in areas like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta who lived in extreme poverty, using his high profile and the media to tell their stories.

Allen said that in Washington and elsewhere, it shocked people who were seeing “extraordinary poverty that most Americans couldn’t believe existed in our country.” Townsend said he used those trips as teaching moments for his children and younger generations.“He was always telling us how lucky we were, and how much we had to do for our country,” she said.

With campaigning for the 2020 election already underway, Townsend said the long campaign as candidates traverse the country stumping for votes will make candidates stronger and give voters a real choice. She also said it is important that they use language that doesn't inflame divisions, which Kennedy was a master of.

Townsend recalled hearing him memorizing quotes from William Shakespeare in their bathroom, or referring to other great works of literature during his time in the car on the way to his office. It is rare, she said, to see politicians so obsessed with finding the right words.

“That doesn’t happen often for politicians, and it happened because he cared so much about language, about words and how it can lift us all up,” Townsend said.

 Jan. 20 kennedys and king logo

Assassinated 1960s civil rights leaders, from left: President John F. Kennedy, Attorney Gen. Robert F. Kennedy (JFK's brother), the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and preacher and activist Malcolm X (photo graphic from the site Kennedys and King)

Justice Integrity Project: Kennedy and King Family Members and Advisors Call for Congress to Reopen Assassination Probes, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 20, 2019. An unprecedented coalition of family members, researchers, film makers, and former law enforcement and other government officials is calling for a new investigation of the four iconic 1960s assassinations. This editor is proud to have joined this effort by the newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

Please help spread the word via social media and any other method. A petition signup page and new website for the committee will be announced early next week. Today's announcement, timed for release before the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday in the United States on Monday, is provided below here and elsewhere.