Title[ Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Ceremony
Date[ November 16, 2005
Location[ Washington, DC
Thank you. It's an honor to be here today, and I'd also like to congratulate Stephen Bradbury on his award and on all the wonderful work he's been doing on behalf of the people of New Orleans.
I come to this with tremendous humility. I was only seven when Bobby Kennedy died. Many of the people in this room knew him as brother, as husband, as father, as friend.
I knew him only as an icon. In that sense, it is a distance I share with most of the people who now work in this Capitol - many of whom were not even born when Bobby Kennedy died. But what's interesting is that if you go throughout the offices in the Capitol, everywhere you'll find photographs of Kennedy, or collections of his speeches, or some other memento of his life.
Why is this? Why is it that this man who was never President, who was our Attorney General for only three years, who was New York's junior Senator for just three and a half, still calls to us today? Still inspires our debate with his words, animates our politics with his ideas, and calls us to make gentle the life of a world that's too often coarse and unforgiving?
Obviously, much has to do with charisma and eloquence - that unique ability, rare for most but common among Kennedys, to sum up the hopes and dreams of the most diverse nation on Earth with a simple phrase or sentence; to inspire even the most apathetic observers of American life.
Part of it is his youth - both the time of life and the state of mind that dared us to hope that even after John was killed; even after we lost King; there would come a younger, energetic Kennedy who could make us believe again.
But beyond these qualities, there's something more.
Within the confines of these walls and the boundaries of this city, it becomes very easy to play small-ball politics. Somewhere between the partisan deadlock and the twenty-four hour news cycles, the contrived talking points and the focus on the sensational over the substantive, issues of war and poverty, hopelessness and lawlessness become problems to be managed, not crises to be solved. They become fodder for the Sunday show scrum, not places to find genuine consensus and compromise. And so, at some point, we stop reaching for the possible and resign ourselves to that which is most probable.
This is what happens in Washington.
And yet, as this goes on, somewhere another child goes hungry in a neighborhood just blocks away from one where a family is too full to eat another bite. Somewhere another hurricane survivor still searches for a home to return to or a school for her daughter. Somewhere another twelve-year-old is gunned down by an assailant who used to be his kindergarten playmate, and another parent loses their child on the streets of Tikrit.
But somewhere, there have also always been people who believe that this isn't the way it was supposed to be - that things should be different in America. People who believe that while evil and suffering will always exist, this is a country that has been fueled by small miracles and boundless dreams - a place where we're not afraid to face down the greatest challenges in pursuit of the greater good; a place where, against all odds, we overcome.
Bobby Kennedy was one of these people.
In a nation torn by war and divided against itself, he was able to look us in the eye and tell us that no matter how many cities burned with violence, no matter how persistent the poverty or the racism, no matter how far adrift America strayed, hope would come again.
It was an idealism not based in rigid ideology. Yes, he believed that government is a force for good - but not the only force. He distrusted big bureaucracies, and knew that change erupts from the will of free people in a free society; that it comes not only from new programs, but new attitudes as well.
And Kennedy's was not a pie-in-the-sky-type idealism either. He believed we would always face real enemies, and that there was no quick or perfect fix to the turmoil of the 1960s.
Rather, the idealism of Robert Kennedy - the unfinished legacy that calls us still - is a fundamental belief in the continued perfection of American ideals.
It's a belief that says if this nation was truly founded on the principles of freedom and equality, it could not sit idly by while millions were shackled because of the color of their skin. That if we are to shine as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, we must be respected not just for the might of our military, but for the reach of our ideals. That if this is a land where destiny is not determined by birth or circumstance, we have a duty to ensure that the child of a millionaire and the child of a welfare mom have the same chance in life. That if out of many, we are truly one, then we must not limit ourselves to the pursuit of selfish gain, but that which will help all Americans rise together.
We have not always lived up to these ideals and we may fail again in the future, but this legacy calls on us to try. And the reason it does - the reason we still hear the echo of not only Bobby's words, but John's and King's and Roosevelt's and Lincoln's before him - is because they stand in such stark contrast to the place in which we find ourselves today.
It's the timidity of politics that's holding us back right now - the politics of can't-do and oh-well. An energy crisis that jeopardizes our security and our economy? No magic wand to fix it, we're told. Thousands of jobs vanishing overseas? It's actually healthier for the economy that way. Three days late to the worst natural disaster in American history? Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.
And of course, if nothing can be done to solve the problems we face, if we have no collective responsibility to look out for one another, then the next logical step is to give everyone one big refund on their government - divvy it up into individual tax breaks, hand em out, and encourage everyone to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own schools, their own roads, their own levees...
We know this as the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism - every man or women for him or herself. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the child who was born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It let's us say to the workers who lose their job when the factory shuts down - you're on your own.
But there is a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.
Robert Kennedy reminded us of this. He reminds us still. He reminds us that we don't need to wait for a hurricane to know that Third World living conditions in the middle of an American city make us all poorer. We don't need to wait for the 3000th death of someone else's child in Iraq to make us realize that a war without an exit strategy puts all of our families in jeopardy. We don't have to accept the diminishment of the American Dream in this country now, or ever.
It's time for us to meet the whys of today with the why nots we often quote but rarely live - to answer "why hunger" and "why homeless," "why violence" and "why despair" with "why not good jobs and living wages," "why not better health care and world class schools," "why not a country where we make possible the potential that exists in every human being?"
If he were here today, I think it would be hard to place Robert F. Kennedy into any of the categories that so often constrain us politically. He was a fervent anti-communist but knew diplomacy was our way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sought to wage the war on poverty but with local partnerships and community activism. He was at once both hard-headed and big-hearted.
And yet, his was not a centrism in the sense of finding a middle road or a certain point on the ideological spectrum. His was a politics that, at its heart, was deeply moral - based on the notion that in this world, there is right and there is wrong, and it's our job to organize our laws and our lives around recognizing the difference.
When RFK made his famous trip to the Mississippi Delta with Charles Evers in 1967, the story is often told about the destitute they encountered as they walked from shack to shack. As they walk into one with hardly a ceiling and a floor full of holes, Kennedy sees a small child with a swollen stomach sitting in the corner. He tries and tries to talk to this child again and again, but he gets no response, no movement, not even a look of awareness. Just a blank stare from cold, wide eyes so battered by poverty that they're barely alive.
And at that point we're told that Kennedy begins to cry. And he turns to Evers and asks "How can a country like this allow it?" and Evers responds "Maybe they just don't know."
Bobby Kennedy spent his life making sure that we knew - not only to wake us from indifference and face us with the darkness we let slip into our own backyard, but to bring us the good news that we have it within our power to change all this; to write our own destiny. Because we are a people of hope. Because we are Americans.
This is the good news we still hear all these years later - the message that still points us down the road that Bobby Kennedy never finished traveling. It's a road I hope our politics and our country begin to take in the months and years to come. Thank you.