Van Ens: Bobby Kennedy’s appeal to youth, our better selves, remains (column)
Robert F. Kennedy gave a challenging speech in my home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the 1968 presidential campaign. As a college junior, he won my vote, but his life was snuffed out before I could cast a ballot.
The Vietnam War rocked the U.S. These turbulent times of social unrest wounded our nation’s heart. It shattered many collegians’ confidence in President Lyndon Johnson, who insisted that increasing napalm bombs and sending more troops would bring victory in Vietnam’s rice paddies.
Kennedy turned from being a war hawk, when he served as attorney general in his brother John F. Kennedy’s presidency, into a stern critic of this conflict. Flag-draped caskets and inflated body counts of dead Viet Cong changed Kennedy. He realized bigger guns, bigger armies and bigger chest-pounding about past victories would not win this war.
Kennedy rallied supporters like me, declaring that a youth’s spirit isn’t determined by numerical age. Our national heart stays youthful when citizens learn from military miscues and reject secretive, macho government policy.
These themes Kennedy uttered in Grand Rapids were crystallized in a Los Angeles speech he gave prior his assassination on June 5, 1968.
Kennedy then declared, “The youthfulness I speak of is not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.
“It is the spirit which knows the difference between force and reason. It does not accept the failures of tomorrow. It knows that we can clasp the future and mold it to our will. This is the spirit I want to see return to America.”
Kennedy’s thick shock of hair made him look like one of the Beatles. This unruly hair dropping over his forehead served as an apt metaphor for our nation at war in Vietnam, ripping apart its national soul. Everything in 1968 felt messy.
Most of my Grand Rapids relatives longed for the return of short hair, long skirts, expletive-free conversation and respect for Uncle Sam. They believed Kennedy’s election as president would unleash societal unruliness and unpatriotic babble. The year 1968 tried my relatives’ souls.
These times, however, captivated Kennedy’s battalions of collegians who chanted “war no-more.” He told us, “…we are the heirs of a revolution which was born of this spirit of youth. The conviction that the mind of man [humankind] must be free to think and act has kindled a worldwide fire which still burns today.
“Leadership which is true to this spirit will recognize the source of our happiness; it will know that we will find fulfillment not in the goods we have, but in the good we can do together.”
While he spoke, gusts played havoc with Kennedy’s unkempt hair hanging in his face. Using fingers as a hand-comb, he swept loose strands atop his scalp. Frequent hand-swipes to comb maverick hair reminded listeners of how John F. Kennedy used the same motion to corral his thick mane.
Etched in my mind is this picture of the Kennedy brothers flicking back messy hair. It’s a metaphor that has inspired me since 1968 to speak out against messes caused by inequality and injustice. Flapping like rogue hairs over eyes, these messes blind us to what is decent.
Work vigilantly to sweep away messes staining our nation’s soul.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (http://www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.