The Audacious Runt
Dad called him the “runt,” but he was mom’s “favorite.” Shy, introspective and melancholic, he was a C- teenager. His brothers topped 6’, but he was 5’9”. Dad was a distant social climber, a nominal Catholic in a WASP world. The oldest brother, Joe, Jr., was daddy’s boy. Athletic, smart and handsome, he was groomed by dad (FDR’s friend) to be the first Catholic U.S. President. Dad sent 19-year-old Joe, Jr. to visit Germany in 1934, who wrote home praising the country’s forced sterilizations as “do[ing] away with many of the disgusting specimens of men.” Perhaps it was preppy cockiness. Perhaps time and grace cured Joe, Jr., as we hope it does for us all. It was the age of eugenics, condemned unequivocally by Pope Pius XI. In 1944, he died on a special operations mission in France. Thereafter, dad transferred his presidential designs to son #2, John.
That’s a snapshot into the lives of some key players in a tumultuous time – a transition from the age of eugenic racism (1930s) to the Age of Aquarius (1960s). Or, if “the medium is the message,” we might call it a transition from the “tribal” radio age (1930s) to the “involving” TV age (1960s). In the meantime, the “runt” was in John’s shadow.
The runt was sensitive and reflective. His lonely eyes betokened a troubled mystic, gazing into the heart of things. Mom feared he’d become “girlish.” He was the only brother not to see combat in World War II. As a man, he disclosed an unfulfilled desire to be a paratrooper. He’d pull physical stunts – with juvenile audacity – perhaps overcompensating for a sense of inferiority. At age 41, while rafting the Grand Canyon, he defied his guide. To the fear of his athletically accomplished companions, he jumped into the icy rapids, floating down the whitewater through and around rocks.
In 1967, he visited the Mississippi Delta. He became “ashen faced” at the sight of the impoverished and hungry black children. Moved by the injustice, he turned inward and said, “You don’t know what I saw. I have done nothing in my life. Everything I have done was a waste. Everything I have done was worthless.” Spoken like a saint before Judgment.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, at age 42, he was travelling to an inner-city neighborhood in Indianapolis when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Three weeks earlier, he announced his candidacy for President and began campaigning in the Democratic primaries. As he approached the city, police warned they couldn’t protect him if riots broke. Defying fear – like his jump into the Colorado River – he spoke without notes on a flatbed truck. Here’s what he said:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some – some very sad news for all of you …. I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. (Cries of horror break out in the crowd…he pauses). Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love. For those of you who are black and are tempted to …. be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also 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 favorite ….poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King …. but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we – and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land. And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: “To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.
That was spontaneous. A providential act of courage. A grace. It’s the only time he spoke publicly about his brother’s death. No riots in Indianapolis, unlike in other cities. Bobby Kennedy’s painful journey from awkward boyhood to being an icon of hope may have been “the awful grace of God” taking hold of him. Grace worked through history too, illuminating a vision of righting Camelot’s wrongs. Even if his audacity was part insecurity, grace can work with that. He was a 1960s visionary of the highest order: an optimist, a realist and a man of Faith. An altar boy semper fidelis, he’d jump the altar rail (as a man) to serve Mass if he saw a shorthanded priest. Among the Kennedys, he was the pious one. During his misadventure at Portsmouth Priory boarding school in the 1930s, he was the boy who went to most weekday Masses. He once sent his mother “recommendations” for serving Mass. A psychologist could have field day with that one…but so could the Holy Spirit.
If 1967 was about the Age of Aquarius and the Summer of Love, 1968 shattered the pipe dream. The Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive cast fresh doubts on the Vietnam War. The Democratic Party was violently divided. Draft card burning and antiwar protests intensified. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Riots ravaged cities. For many, Bobby was hope’s beacon for racial justice and peace. His popularity among students, minorities and even mainstreamers was often electric. Inner-city kids would run alongside his motorcade. Bobby came to life in crowds. “Kennedy needed children as much as they needed him,” said a journalist. Black activist Sonny Carson said, “He was this younger brother full of pain.” LBJ called him a “grandstanding runt.” Crowds pulled him from his convertible, ripping off his cufflinks and, twice, a shoe. He even chipped a tooth. Not bad for a C- introvert. He was the man for “cool” media, the TV.
Bobby won the California primary on June 4, defeating Eugene McCarthy. Shortly before midnight, he entered the Embassy Ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, declaring victory. Amid euphoric and sweaty crowds, Bobby appeared with Ethel and spoke of ending divisions and violence. “We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country...” He and Ethel departed as crowds chanted, “We want Bobby! We want Bobby!” The hotel’s maître d’ lead them down a back corridor while Bobby glad-handed kitchen staff. As he turned to look for Ethel, a .22 caliber fired “pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.” His head took a bullet.
There were veins of nobility in ‘60s activism amid the moral chaos. Post-Bobby, many Americans mourned the loss of these high hopes – a sadness sung by Dion in Dick Holler’s requiem, “Abraham, Martin and John.” But the Father’s Providence weaves tragedy to the good. Fifty years later, in these confused and contentious times, we can (like RFK) draw upon the grace of the Altar and principles of Faith to move forward in Hope.
*Fact and quotes were taken from Evan Thomas’ excellent biography of RFK.
**Also, check out The Greatest Speech Ever - Robert F Kennedy Announcing The Death Of Martin Luther King.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor