President Bill Clinton
Remarks in Memory of Robert F. Kennedy
Arlington National Cemetery
June 6, 2018
Thank you, Congressman Kennedy, for your remarks and your remarkable embodiment of what Robert Kennedy stood for. Thank you, Mrs. Kennedy—Ethel—and members of the Kennedy family for inviting me to join you again 25 years after the first observance at Arlington, and 50 years since we lost Senator Kennedy. I thank those who have sung and spoken, reminding us once more of the timeless wisdom of Robert Kennedy’s words, and all of you for the efforts you have made over half a century to advance the work he could not finish. I think if he were here today—and as we were told in the invocation, he really is here today—he would remind us that perhaps the words he spoke are even truer today than they were then.
In another time of heated debate and deep division, it is important that we remember what he meant to us when we were young and what he means today. In 1968, after a couple of tumultuous years leading up to it, every day seemed to bring a new piece of bad news and a deepening division in America. It was my last semester in college here at Georgetown. If somebody said, “What did you do at the end of your college career?” I would say, “Well, Martin Luther King got killed on April 4th. Just a few days before that President Johnson said he wouldn’t run again. The country was so divided over Vietnam and everybody feared the whole thrust of the civil rights movement could be lost.” As John Lewis proved again, the best remarks given after Dr. King was killed, I believe, were in Robert Kennedy’s finest speech in Indianapolis. We rocked along through two months of turmoil and then he won in California in the primary. I still remember the vote, do you? He lost Oregon by a little bit and then won in California 45 to 42. And God forgive me for being politically incorrect, but I was so glad they had winner-take-all primaries back then.
Why am I saying this when we’re all being so lofty? Because he was a flesh and blood man who fought in a tough arena and continued to grow.
Today we seem to think our clan and tribe are more important than anything else and require us to be divided from one another. He came, as you see here, from quite a clan. And he did every single thing he could to increase it. And as you know, the Kennedy clan was clearly an Irish tribe. Those of us who share that heritage are proud of it. What is the difference between then and now? The difference is that he embodied the whole message of the faith of his fathers and mothers. Before His Holiness Pope Francis called us to engage in a “culture of encounter,” Robert Kennedy viscerally, instinctively lived a life of encounter. The life of the outstretched hand, not the clenched fist.
He lived it in Appalachia and in the Mississippi Delta; in Watts and Bed-Stuy; on Native American reservations and among farm workers who had no one else to look out for them; then all the way to the townships of South Africa still groaning under Apartheid. Did he ever once give up his clan or his tribe? No. He said, “What has that got to do with whether we can live together? What has that got to do with whether we have to acknowledge that our common humanity is even more important than our interesting differences?” And he did something unusual for a politician back then, when you couldn’t check every word every day. He actually said the same thing everywhere he went. He would go into a white working class neighborhood and tell them exactly the same thing he would say in a poor neighborhood of African Americans. He would stand in the synagogue and say the same thing he would say at a Knights of Columbus meeting. And if we had had a large Muslim population back then, he would’ve gone to them and said, “You, too, can be part of America if you share our values and our vision.”
For his work with them, the National Congress of American Indians, 90 tribes, gave him a tribal name: Brave Heart. His brave heart took him to California to be with Cesar Chavez on his hunger strike; to make a 200-mile trip across Appalachia to see the shacks where parents struggled to feed their children; to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—in the middle of the Indiana primary race; to enrage the Apartheid government in South Africa by plunging into the crowds in Soweto and shaking hands. He encountered people. And challenged all of us to do the same.
His message really, no matter how dressed up in the finest poetry, never changed: We can do better. And because we can, we must. He gave it over and over and over. And while the words were beautiful, there was more. If you weren’t alive then, look at the films that are coming out now. The energy was awesome. And the intensity of his conviction was like a blow torch burning away all those layers of complacency and comfort. Show up. Stand up. We can do better.
He didn’t let anybody off the hook. He said, “Yeah, I want to help you, but you’ve got to work hard. And all you comfortable middle-class people who don’t have a lot of money to give away, you need to do something to serve your community. And all you people who are rich like me, we don’t need this much. You need to give more so we can grow together and prosper together. And oh, by the way we’ll all be better off, but you should do it because, as you heard, it’s the right thing to do. There’s something for everybody to do.”
Fifty years later he would say, “I’m 92 now and you have to listen to me from a distance. I still try to speak to the young.” We stood up for Emma. You know why I love that? Because she and her generation are the first people who have made sensible, sane gun safety laws a voting issue in this country. When I was President, we passed the assault weapons ban and the magazine limit, but we couldn’t make it a voting issue and we got our brains beat out in the next election. When she and her colleagues said “We do not deserve to die in school, schools need not be killing grounds,” America recognized finally that these students need our support not just sympathy. If he were still here today, Bobby Kennedy would say to gun owners, “Nobody is trying to take away your right to hunt, to sport shoot, to defend your family. But we should take away the option to commit mass murder with killing machines, and without adequate background checks.” That’s what Emma did today. And that’s the kind of thing he did viscerally. I never saw anything like it.
At our 50th reunion at Georgetown last week, I was trying to determine what to write in our memory book and I kept thinking about Bobby Kennedy. When he died early on the morning of June the 6th, two days before we graduated, one of my roommates was volunteering in his office—Tommy Caplan’s here with me today. We stayed up to watch him win California, and then a couple hours later he’s on my bed beating on me, “They shot him, they shot him.”
So, as I wrote about our college years, all I could think about was that in his campaign, Robert Kennedy said “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” He loved Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It was perfect. It was like, “Hey, I’m a 42-year-old cool guy and young people can relate to me and we’re going to do great things. We can make America young again.”
Those of us who were there then were moved in many ways. I never forgot his example, nor did Hillary, who was proud to serve in the same Senate seat he occupied. Now we all have to join and support the young people today. Go back and read “Ulysses.” It is a poem of an old man saying, “You can’t quit. There is still something good you can do. Let’s go do it.”
We’ve got to stop hating each other. It’s bad for us. And by the way, that includes the members of our clans and our tribes. The outstretched hand beats the clinched fist.
So I say to you, as he would if he were 92 standing here, “Thank you very much for showing up and saying all these nice things and reciting my words. But it all amounted to me saying, ‘We can do better. And because we can, we must.’ So let us resolve to do better. In “Ulysses” when he says it is not too late to seek a newer world, Ulysses is calling his old gang together and saying, “What do you say we get on the ship one more time and sail beyond the western skies until we die? Just one more time. We can still do it.”
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…
Though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will…
(And here’s Robert Kennedy in a line)
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
We thank him after 50 years because we can still feel the energy: in the parades, reaching across the convertible tops; in the shacks of Appalachia; in the depths of Watts; and yes, all the way to Soweto.
We can do it all over again. But we have to do it the way he did: speaking to everybody; saying the same thing to everybody; with a heart full of love and an outstretched hand. His legacy has brought us here and will see us on.
God bless you.