When my father died he was in the midst of a political campaign; but in retrospect some have characterized the last five years of his life, including his battle for the presidency in 1968, as one long, urgent moral crusade.
I remember the burden of grief that fell on him in November 1963--the loss of a brother, the end of an administration whose purposes he had fought hard to achieve: a strong defense linked always to efforts at disarmament; a new recognition of blacks in the South as voters, and as being entitled to every measure of social and economic opportunity; the encouragement of idealism here and abroad through the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress, or the attention given to the needs of this nation's poor and needy families.
Yet my father did not allow himself to be stopped by that tragedy--one he knew millions of other Americans shared, especially those who had come to regard President Kennedy as a fair-minded and thoughtful friend, anxious to extend a hand to his more vulnerable fellow citizens. Soon enough New York's Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was taking on some of the most serious problems this country had in the 1960s--and still has.
I remember him traveling to the rural South, to Appalachia, to the ghettos of city after city in America. He was working with other senators-- Ribicoff of Connecticut, Clark of Pennsylvania--to document the extent of unemployment in the country, to evaluate the housing and educational requirements of particular neighborhoods and sometimes entire regions.
At times, though, he couldn't seem to stop himself from going further. He'd become, I suppose, a man morally haunted--by the spectacle of hunger and malnutrition, of idleness and rampant, avoidable illness in hundreds of thousands of people whose country was the world's richest and strongest. I now realize that much of my father's passionate advocacy of social and economic change was fueled not only by his strong religious life but by his willingness in those years to go out and take a good, hard, firsthand look at what was happening to ordinary Americans.
In the Delta of Mississippi he saw children living in shacks, their bellies distended by inadequate diet. He saw the results of poor sanitation. He asked questions and learned what it was like to have no prospect of work--and no recourse to assistance from local, county or state agencies. He met people who had never known doctors or lawyers or well-trained teachers. Such people had gone to our cities by the millions, and he went to the neighborhoods of those cities that had received these American-born migrants-- white and black-- who had tied their fate to our urban factories.
It didn't take my father long to notice the despair of men and women who wanted work but found it hard to get; and the despair of those who brought with them, unavoidably, the handicaps of a mean and harsh life: untreated disease, faulty education, an utter lack of experience of the hustle of modern industrial life. And it didn't take him long to make suggestions--that the hungry be fed, that the hard-pressed and poor who are ill receive medical care, and the unemployed obtain enough benefits to keep them fed and with a roof over their heads.
My father was restless during those last years of his life. What he saw and the conscience bestirred by it gave him little time to relax. In this country he glimpsed the tragedy of our Indian people--their constantly difficult and impoverished reservation life. He talked with migrant workers, and asked aloud why it should be that those who enable us to eat so well should themselves fare so badly. He confronted coal mine owners (in Senate hearings) with the plight of their employees--the extreme dangers so many miners have had to take for granted as part of this life's burden. He was not afraid of the power those corporate leaders wielded, any more than he feared James Hoffa and the power of his corrupt union.
Even on our vacations, he was not content to close his eyes and whistle the tune of the lucky few who are rich and powerful and able to get their way. I remember his love for our land; I remember those boat trips down the Colorado-- the constant veneration he felt for this nation's natural resources, its air and its rivers and its lakes and its forests and its wildlife. He worried two decades ago about what would happen if--if the government failed to protect our nation's one and only environment; and that if has, I fear, become a matter of now.
My father also realized that this country cannot go it alone; our "environment" includes all the other nations of the world. His travels abroad during the last years of his life, in retrospect, were exceedingly prophetic--almost uncannily so. He went to Poland (I went with him) and
was greeted by a sea of people,
hungry for the presence of an
American leader who dared
speak of the virtues of democra cy. He went to South Africa,
and at the University of Cape
Town gave one of his most
memorable speeches--a stirring
challenge to his listeners to take
up arms against the world's
various injustices, many of them
all too apparent in that tor mented nation. On the way
home my mother and he asked
that their plane tip its wings in
a gesture of affectionate respect
as it passed over Robben Island,
where so many opponents of the
hateful apartheid regime are
Not least, he went to Latin
America, to Venezuela and
Chile and Brazil, ever anxious
in those countries to break away
from "principalities and
powers," to walk the streets,
climb the favellas, even go
down into the mines, in order to
meet the penniless, bruised--
but sometimes amazingly,
fiercely proud--people who live
in those countries. To this day,
when I go to countries in Cen tral or South America, I hear of
his visits--the warm and spon taneous reception he received
from large crowds of peasants
and workers, the apprehension
he inspired in the region's vari ous dictators and wealthy oli garchs.
He was, I suppose, a man of obvious contradictions. Born rich, he worried about the poor--tried hard to improve their lot here and elsewhere on this planet. Tough and forceful in the cruelly competitive world of politics, he was compassionate in his regard for those who had no power. Practical and keenly aware of the constraints that press upon all leaders, he was a stubborn dreamer, a man anxious to inspire others, extend a nation's vision of what is both desirable and possible.
At the end of his life he was, many said, virtually alone in his ability to gather an almost fervent support from millions of America's working people--black and white and Spanish- speaking. He had become, I guess, a kind of populist, and an electable one. Now, 15 years after his death, as I think of what has happened here in America and in other countries, too, I realize that millions of plain people, trying to make a go of it, often against considerable odds, are entitled to keep mourning the terribly premature death of Robert F. Kennedy as much as those in his family still do--his mother, his wife, his brother, his sisters, his children.