Synopsis: A collection of the words that Robert Kennedy used to move others, and the words of others that moved Robert Kennedy.
My Take: Compiled by RFK’s ninth child (!), “Make Gentle The Life of This World” is a delicious combination of extracts from Robert Kennedy’s own speeches and a selection of passages from a daybook collaboratively compiled by both JFK and RFK from their vociferous personal reading. Thematically organised around the subjects that RFK continually returned to throughout his life (eg “The Act of Living”, “An American Spirit”, “Seeking a Better World”, “A Citizen in a Civil Society”), these selections paint an evocative picture of the character of the man.
One is struck while reading the selections from RFK’s daybook at the volume and depth of the man’s reading. RFK was no mere political hack, no “Hollowman”. His daybook drew from sources as diverse as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Goethe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Dante, Francis Bacon, Lao-Tzu, the Ramayana, Thomas Jefferson, Herodotus, Ernest Hemmingway, George Orwell, Montesquieu, Lord Acton, Thomas Paine, Pericles, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Shakespeare. What is even more impressive is that Kennedy clearly read deeply in these authors. The passages he extracts are not the traditional ‘Inspirational Quotes’ one might encounter in Bartlett’s. Instead they are often obscure and united more by their philosophical constancy than their quotability.
In this sense, the selected passages offer genuine insights into Kennedy’s world view. As Maxwell Kennedy notes in the introduction:
“The selections in this book can be read almost like poetry, or as meditations for someone who wants to think about Robert Kennedy and the 1960s and the nature of politics and leadership.”
What I also found striking while reflecting on these passages was the remarkable foresight in Kennedy’s intellectual fixations – especially on issues that were quite controversial in progressive politics 30 years ago. While RFK is remembered best for speaking out on the timeless issues of racial harmony, equality of opportunity and the end of the Vietnam war, Bobby was no progressive populist. Kennedy was constitutionally incapable of biting his tongue in the face of lazy thinking. As such, he continually returned to issues that he thought were being neglected or being led by blind ideology. In this way, he came into conflict with the left wing of his own party just as much as he did with the Republicans (and no doubt fed much of the antipathy towards him during his life). But with the passage of time, Kennedy’s approach to the issues on which he came into conflict with his own party has largely been vindicated. Whether it was speaking out against oppression abroad (principally Communism), the moral import of employment, the deleterious effects of a reliance on welfare, or the central importance of law and order, Kennedy’s views, while unpopular at the time have now become widely accepted as core tenants in progressive politics.
If you have an interest in progressive politics, this book is like a full body massage for your inner idealist. You can’t help but come away from this book feeling reinvigorated about the potential of the political process. For those of you employed in the day to day business of politics, regular mental escapes into high-minded philosophy of public service are an essential reminder of why you are in this business in the first place.
Highlights: Again, I haven’t sought to replicate Bobby’s most famous quotes below, instead I’ve selected some of the less well known, but equally insightful passages included in this book:
The Responsibilities of Privilege
[During One of RFK’s speeches at a university medical school, a student in the crowd at a speech at a University asked “Where are you going to get all the money for these federally subsidized programs you’re talking about?”]
From You. Let me say something about the tenor of that question and some of the other questions. There are people in this country who suffer. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces who are going to be doctors. You talk about where the money will come from… Part of civilised society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. You don’t see many people coming out of the gehetytos or off the Indian reservations to medical school. You are the privledged ones here. It’s easy to sit back and say it’s the fault of the federal government, but it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society, not just our government, that spends twice as much on pets as on the poverty program. It’s the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Vietnam. You sit here as white medical students while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam.”
On America’s Moral Leadership
John Adams once said that he considered the founding of America part of “A divine plan for the liberation of the slavish part of mankind all over the globe.” This faith did not spring from grandiose schemes of empires abroad. It grew instead from confidence that the example set by our nation – the example of individual liberty fused with common effort – would spark the spirit of liberty around the planet; and that once unleashed, no despot could suppress it, no prison could restrain it, no army could withstand it.”
In Africa, I tried to answer those who asked, “If the United States is fighting for self-determination in Vietnam, then how can it not support the independence struggle of Angola and Mozambique?” I answered unsatisfactorily, for there is no real answer. Yet to the questioners, it is less our intention than our pretension that is objectionable. Thus does false principle destroy the credibility of our wisdom and purpose that is the true foundation of influence as a world power.
On the Metrics of a Nation’s Success
Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Our liberty can grow only when the liberties of all our fellow men are secure; and he who would enslave others ends only by chaining himself, for chains have two ends, and he who holds the chain is as securely bound as he whom it holds.
It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from.
President Kennedy then went on to point out that “Law is the strongest link between man and freedom”. I wonder in how many countries of the world people think of law as the “link between man and freedom.” We know that in many, law is the instrument of tyranny, and people think of law as little more than the will of the state, or the party – not of the people.
In a democratic society law is the form which free men give to justice. The glory of justice and the majesty of law are created not just by the Constitution – no by the Courts – nor by the officers of the law – nor by the lawyers – but by the men and women who constitute our society – who are the protectors of the law as they are themselves protected by the law.”
The root problem is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do – which means nothing to do with the rest of us. To be without work, to be without use to one’s fellow citizens, is to be in truth the Invisible Man of whom Ralph Ellison wrote.
The answer to the welfare crisis is work, jobs, self-sufficiency, and family integrity; not a massive new extension of welfare; not a great new outpouring of guidance counsellors to give the poor more advice. We need jobs… that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, “I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.”
On the Importance of Politics
The time is important for us to rise in defense of politics. There is no greater need than for educated men and women to point their careers toward public service as the finest and most rewarding type of life.
“We differ from other states in that we regard the individual who holds himself aloof from public affairs as being useless. Yet we yield to non one in our independence of spirit and complete self-reliance. – Pericles
“Our word idiot comes from the Greek name for the man who took no share in public matters” Edith Hamilton.