"To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world": Remembering Bobby

This post is a little late, but I was in Germany last month. This last June marked the 40 year anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination and the end of his 1968 presidential campaign. I've always been intrigued by Bobby's last campaign because I feel that he found something, morally speaking, during those fateful months in '68. I, and many others, wonder what could have been if Bobby had lived. I was reminded of all this after reading two recent books. The first is The Last Campaign: Robert Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America by Thurston Clarke. The second is A Time it Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties by Time photographer Bill Eppridge, a book largely composed of previously unpublished pictures of RFK's presidential run.

It is true that Bobby inspires mixed feelings and reactions, but I feel that something happened to him in the wake of his brother's assassination. To cope with his pain Bobby turned to the Greeks. One of his favorite quotes in speaking of JFK's death was this poem by Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep,
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I think Bobby, through his suffering, did find wisdom. Through his wounds he found a capacity to reach out to those who were suffering. This wisdom allowed Bobby to speak to pain as few could. Take, for example, Bobby's speech on April 4, 1968 as he addressed a volatile crowd in Indianapolis, just two hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Every major American city had race riots that night. But not in Indianapolis. To this day city leaders of Indianapolis credit Bobby's speech for the lack of violence in their city that night. As one black militant said of Bobby's speech: "We went there for trouble, but after he spoke we couldn't get nowhere." In that speech Bobby again appealed to the Greeks to show how we might use our pain to create a better world:

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.

What I find amazing about Bobby's '68 campaign is that he was saying things that no candidate could say today. Bobby was hard, morally hard, on Americans. In campaign stop after campaign stop he spoke about poverty, race relations, and the war. He blasted American consumerism. Here, taken from Clarke's book, is one of my favorite passages from RFK's campaign speeches:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, now, is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but the GNP--if we should judge America by that--counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead...and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage...it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

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5 thoughts on “"To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world": Remembering Bobby”

  1. Hi Richard,

    Off-topic, but due to your blog I have received (as birthday presents) Mark Heim's Saved from Sacrifice and Girard's Violence & The Sacred, The Scapegoat & Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

    Is it better to read the Girard first so I'm fresh and not bound to Heim's reading when I first read them, or is it better to read Heim first as a way in?



  2. redlefty,
    I was born in '67 so I too missed the moment. My appreciation is historical rather than autobiographical. My sympathy and curiosity about Bobby's '68 campaign is that the issues he was running on--poverty, race relations, and ending the war--were moral issues. More specifically, Bobby was telling America that we were wrong, morally failing in each of these areas. So the question I (and others) routinely entertain is: Could a candidate be elected president by running a wholly moral campaign, by emphasizing moral critique? Today the answer is clearly no, but on the night Bobby died (just after he had won the California primary) it seemed that America might be willing to elect just such a candidate.

    Hi Tim,
    Happy Birthday! Those are some great birthday presennts. I also got a stack of books for my birthday last month. Good times.

    Here's my take on reading order. I, personally, find Giriard somewhat opaque. He's a French literary critic at root, which means that he isn't the most accessible read. This is why Heim's book is so useful, he distills Giriard for the church. Given all this I'd do the following: Read Heim first to get the broad outlines of Giriard's ideas. From there read Giriard's works. However, if you are a purist at heart start with Giriard and go for as long as you are edified. If you make it all the way through you can pick up Heim. If, however, your journey through Giriard is slow and confusing then put it down, read Heim, and then rejoin Giriard.

  3. Cheers! I will go for Heim first, which is good because that one's already arrived and I have to wait for the weekend for the others!

  4. If you grant the dichotomy of idolatrous vs. prophetic spirituality, our current president seems to be an object lesson in the folly of the former. Do you think that "Bobby" could have resisted a slide into the same?

    It seems to me that it is of the nature of politics to create winners and losers, and that the need to be a winner (to attain and stay in office) makes compromises with power brokers necessary, along with--worse--a mythology of self-righteousness that justifies the compromises.

    But I do see a prophet in the words you quote... It's just that true prophets don't seem to live very long.

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