Bobby Kennedy was recognized in his day as a Samaritan, a man deeply gifted in finding and speaking to the common core of diverse people. He spoke in his own register – as a white, male, Yankee and “elitist” – but was nonetheless heard and embraced by blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and astoundingly, poor whites who had supported George Wallace. From today’s fractious vantage point, it seems unfathomable.
The authentic humane poet came out in a crucible test. Kennedy had planned to address a volatile black crowd in Indianapolis; but Martin Luther King had just been gunned down in Memphis, and Kennedy would have to toss his prepared speech and deliver the horrific news to the crowd with the obvious potential of violence.
The gutsy and real came together; stretched between grief and desire, pushed by deep emotion, Kennedy produced something transcendent. “For those of you who are black, who are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people…” It would have been easy to deny that. Instead Kennedy said, “I feel it too.” For the first time, he talked about his bottomless grief for his brother, prescribing compassion and love.
And then to the crowd of stunned, seething people in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto, he said, “My favorite poet is Aeschylus.” What? “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, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'” It went straight to the heart. Kennedy closed by quoting the Greeks again: let’s dedicate ourselves “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.” Amen.