He was 36, and he had lost two brothers to assassins: first President John F. Kennedy, then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Inside St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, before 2,100 people wearing black, the last surviving Kennedy brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, began his unannounced eulogy for Bobby.
“On behalf of Mrs. Kennedy, her children, the parents and sisters of Robert Kennedy, I want to express what we feel to those who mourn with us today in this Cathedral and around the world,” the young senator from Massachusetts said on June 8, 1968. “We loved him as a brother, and as a father, and as a son.”
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It had been three days since Bobby Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just moments after celebrating his win in the California Democratic presidential primary. The nation was in shock, still reeling from the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., two months earlier and the riots that followed. RFK’s presidential bid had inspired hope that turned to despair.
For the Kennedys, the loss was unimaginable. Of nine children, four had been killed. First, 29-year-old Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr., was lost in action during World War II. Four years later, 28-year-old Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy died in a 1948 plane crash. Then JFK was gunned down in Dallas in 1963 at the age of 46. And now RFK, 42, was dead, too.
So at the funeral, it seemed right that Ted Kennedy — the youngest Kennedy child and last living son — would deliver his brother’s eulogy, a speech later considered the most profound of his career. It was lyrical and poetic, both an ode to Bobby Kennedy the politician and Bobby Kennedy the man.
“He gave us strength in time of trouble, wisdom in time of uncertainty, and sharing in time of happiness. He will always be by our side,” Ted Kennedy said at the funeral. “Love is not an easy feeling to put into words. Nor is loyalty, or trust, or joy. But he was all of these. He loved life completely and he lived it intensely.”
In its front page story about the funeral, The Washington Post called Kennedy’s eulogy an “emotional highlight” and characterized the senator’s composure as a “heroic effort at self control.” The mass, The Post wrote, “had moments of almost unbearable poignancy.”
Most of Kennedy’s speech was made up not of his own words, but those of Bobby, which he read aloud to the mourners.
First came an excerpt his brother had written about their father, which Ted Kennedy said “expresses the way we in his family felt about him.”
“What it really all adds up to is love — not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. Our awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, we could not help but profit from it.” And he continued, “Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off.”
Next, Ted Kennedy resurfaced a speech his brother gave in 1966 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Young student leaders there had invited Bobby Kennedy to speak on their Day of Affirmation, when those who resisted the apartheid regime rededicated themselves to the ideals of justice and freedom. The speech advocated for the poor and marginalized, for those starving and enslaved. It challenged repressive governments and those who try to silence dissent. And it encouraged young people to be agents for change.
Ted Kennedy took excerpts from the famous address and cobbled them together, editing in places to deliver the same lessons but transformed for a new audience. The “differing evils” of the world, Ted Kennedy said quoting Bobby, are the “common works of man.”
“The answer is to rely on youth — not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease,” Ted Kennedy read from the 1966 speech, adding his own phrasing in spots. “The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.”
In his own words, Ted Kennedy then spoke of America’s future.
“Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control,” he said. “It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.”
Then, he added: “That is the way he lived. That is what he leaves us.”
At the end of the eulogy, Ted Kennedy’s voice quavered over the words with which he left the crowd.
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be 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,” he said. “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 some day 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.”
He paused, regaining his composure to quote Bobby a final time: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
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