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Kevin Cullen

A legacy of freedom

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / April 3, 2008

Tomorrow will be 40 years, 40 years to the day, that Bobby Kennedy climbed some steps to a platform in Indianapolis.

Kennedy was running for president, and he was in Indiana looking for votes. But as he looked out over a sea of black faces, the stump speech was in his pocket, and the words he spoke came from some place much deeper.

Few in the crowd knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot in Memphis. Kennedy had only found out when he got off the plane in Indianapolis. The police advised him against making the appearance, in a poor black neighborhood, fearing that news of King's assassination would trigger violence. But Kennedy climbed onto the platform and broke the news.

There was a sharp intake of breath, and then the crowd fell silent. And in that void, Bobby Kennedy spoke, as fine and as important and as dignified a speech as has ever been given by any politician anywhere. If you've never heard it, click here to listen to it now.

His plea for calm and restraint, as he reminded those tempted to lash out violently that his brother had also been killed by a white man, is raw and real and achingly poignant.

Some cities burned 40 years ago. Indianapolis did not. If James Brown's concert at the Garden spared Boston the fate of so many other cities, Bobby Kennedy's speech surely spared Indianapolis.

John Seigenthaler, the reporter who became Kennedy's aide when he was attorney general, played that speech over the PA system at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library a couple of weeks ago, when Bobby's old friends gathered on Dorchester Bay to remember his campaign. And, listening to it, what was most striking was its sparse, simple majesty.

Ethel Kennedy, Bobby's widow, was there, listening to the tape. So was his friend, Rafer Johnson, who at 72 still looks as if he could complete a decathlon. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bobby and Ethel's oldest child, remarked on how often her dad's name comes up in the current presidential campaign.

"Many people are referring to him, quoting him, claiming his legacy," she said. "Disputes are rampant. And I'm not just talking about my family."

For those of you keeping score at home: Kathleen is with Hillary, while her uncle Ted and cousin Caroline are working for Obama. As Townsend sees it, the disputes over who is most like Bobby Kennedy mean something. "His legacy lives," she said. "It matters."

Maybe it lives and matters because, unlike so many politicians today, Bobby Kennedy appealed to people's best instincts, as he did that day in Indianapolis. Maybe it lives and matters because he told hard truths. He told his fellow liberals they were too often more interested in being seen as being right than in passing laws that made things better. He told conservative Southern governors who had been his allies that segregation had to end. He told black people, seething over King's assassination, that they could be filled with a desire for revenge or they could follow King's example.

History repeats itself. It's 40 years later, and we're in a war that seems as divisive and as unwinnable as Vietnam was when Bobby Kennedy ran to end it. Except those who most insisted on this current war want someone else's kids to fight it. If there were a draft right now, there would be people on the street, just as in 1968, because the truth of the matter is that 2008 is 1968, without a draft.

When it was all over that Sunday afternoon, the panel discussions, the speeches, Ted Kennedy choked up, talking about his brother. Ethel Kennedy looked around and said, almost wistfully, "It's great that Bobby had such friends."

People were saying their goodbyes, and an old woman bent down and asked one of Bobby Kennedy's granddaughters what her name is. Ten-year-old Saoirse Hill told her, but the woman looked back with incomprehension. Saoirse's name is Gaelic and it regularly provokes questions.

"It means freedom," Saoirse said.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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