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Robert Kennedy: Quotes to Live By

Updated on March 14, 2015
Kennedy speaks to crowd outside Justice Department (Jun 14, 1963).
Kennedy speaks to crowd outside Justice Department (Jun 14, 1963). | Source

What It Takes to Run a Country

[Part 2 of series. See Part 1here: Robert Kennedy quotes]

Robert F. Kennedy was a politician, certainly.

He had worked as an aide for Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 presidential race; and ran the presidential campaign for his brother, Jack Kennedy, in 1960. He worked alongside Jack and then Lyndon B. Johnson, and then ran for, and won a Senate seat in 1964. He began his own campaign for the Presidency in March 1968.

What made Bobby Kennedy unusual was his approach to politics. His views on duty, citizenship, and leadership in a democracy seemed to have provided him a unique vantage point to view himself and the world; and may have given him strength to weather the great storms that came his way.


Bobby Kennedy’s view of citizenship wasn’t exactly the view that is common today. Today, we talk about a citizen as a person with certain rights and privileges. Kennedy viewed a citizen in a way that was similar to the early Greek version: a citizen is someone with responsibility to society.

He explains his view in a 1962 speech while Attorney General:

“Since the days of Greece and Rome when the word ‘citizen’ was a title of honour, we have often seen more emphasis put on the rights of citizenship than on its responsibilities. And today, as never before in the free world, responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom’s privileges.” - From speech at the University of San Francisco Law School (September 29, 1962).

It may be surprising to those who’ve ascribed to the “Kennedys-as-liberals” narrative that Bobby (and Jack) had many conservative fiscal views. Bobby believed that, although Government could play a role in protecting the well-being of its citizens, he distrusted bureaucrats and preferred not to give money through politicians to solve problems.

In his 1964 book, The Pursuit of Justice, he wrote: “The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use – of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.”

For Kennedy, in return for the rights they may be given, citizens have a duty to the democratic process, and specifically a duty to participate and contribute to that process. To solve your problems on a personal level, or a national level, you must take ownership; and have a realization that “it starts with me.”

Voter apathy, ignorance of the issues, and anemic citizenship spells doom for any democracy.


Doing What's Important

How do you know which issues need to be focused on? Bobby suggested starting by looking at the issues that are important to you deep inside. Understand what you’re willing to live with, and what you’re committed to change. Look at what you can make right from what is currently wrong.

What is the short version?: do the right thing.

Here is Robert Kennedy from his 1966 speech in Cape Town, South Africa, speaking about the issue that he was deeply invested in – basic human rights:

“We must do this [recognizing the human rights for all people], not because it is economically advantageous -- although it is; not because the laws of God command it -- although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do." - From speech at University of Cape Town (June 6, 1966).

Kennedy advises us to choose our causes wisely. Basing policy on public approval ratings and polls leads to shortsighted efforts and boomerang consequences. Likewise, measuring success with a monetary yardstick can be dangerous. Today we judge things too much by money: the amount in our pockets or the size of our homes.

For Kennedy, using the right yardstick was as important as having good goals to begin with. In 1968 he warned us about measuring progress using Gross National Product:

“[For] too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that GNP — 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 can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” - From speech at University of Kansas (March 18, 1968).

When it comes to deciding a direction to take, Bobby suggested sticking to what’s most important – that life is too short to do otherwise.


Internal Strength

Living by your values can be trying. Expect pushback from others. In a nation that uses democratic principles, pushback is all part of the process.

Looking deep inside for your core values is important, because, as Bobby reminds us, it’s the same place you need to go for the courage and the strength to make change happen.

After you determine what goals you need to achieve, you should set your own expectations about your ability to achieve them. And you need to commit personal courage and perseverance to get the task done. This is part of your duty as a citizen.

Bobby ascribed to Churchill’s view, “[that courage is] the first of human qualities because it guarantees all the others.”

Kennedy knew that achieving great things happened only when you were able to create a sense of certainty and expectations -- “hope” in essence – to accomplish the goals that others consider impossible. Here’s how he described it in 1966:

"Men without hope, resigned to despair and oppression, do not make revolutions. It is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion for justice are unloosed." - From speech at University of California at Berkeley (October 22, 1966).

Good Reading at Amazon

The Power of One

Bobby gave one of his most powerful speeches not as an Attorney General, nor as a candidate, but as a world citizen, to a crowd of South African students at the University of Cape Town. He gave the speech as an outsider, an American who had come to speak about apartheid in a country where, at the time, most believed that apartheid was inevitable.

In his Ripples speech, as it’s known today, Robert Kennedy tells us all about the power within every single one of us:

“[There is] the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills-against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's greatest movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

"Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." These men moved the world, and so can we all… Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. ... Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” - From speech at University of Cape Town (June 6, 1966).

Today the voices – the ‘ripples’ – are from Tibet, from Libya, from Syria, and from thousands of other spots around the globe where people find themselves unfairly subjected to the power of others.

Even in the United States of the present day, five decades after RFK, the American electorate has been re-awakened by voices belonging to the grassroots of society, angry with how things have turned out.

Continued: (Part 3) Bobby Kennedy On the World Today

Today, some new nations are exploring their democratic potential, while established democracies are facing serious challenges. How would Bobby Kennedy advise democracies in the present day? See Part 3 -- final article -- visit: Bobby Kennedy Quotes :Part 3


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