‘Robert Kennedy provided me with my moral compass’

Robert F. Kennedy understood that that there were “two Americas.”
Robert F. Kennedy understood that that there were “two Americas.” Getty Images

The first time I wrote publicly about Robert Kennedy was in 1968. I was the newly elected student body president at the University of Miami, and the school newspaper, the Miami Hurricane, asked me to write a column about the recently assassinated Robert Kennedy. They knew I had idolized him.

I recently re-read the article and, as I suspected, it pretty much read as hero worship written through the eyes of a politically engaged, but naive 20 year old. Little did I know at that time how much that cursed, but vibrant, year of 1968 and the towering influence of Robert Kennedy were to inform my actions. I eventually went on to serve as Democratic Party chairman and then as a Florida legislator who made a difference.

I had been inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric and boundless vision. Like countless others, I committed my life to political activism when he was assassinated. So when Robert Kennedy declared for the presidency five years later, it was like having a front-row seat to the restoration of Camelot. I was a total Kennedy acolyte, to the point where I actually believed my election for student body president was related to Kennedy’s winning the presidency. In the midst of my own campaign, the Miami Hurricane mocked my imitation of Kennedy’s mannerisms and speaking style. I didn’t care — I won.

I had planned to spend the summer of ’68 at UM, taking some courses and preparing for my year as incoming student body president. On June 4, I flew home to New York to see my family. I watched coverage of the California primary. Then, the unthinkable — I didn’t off the television for most of the next few days, except to pay my respects to Senator Kennedy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

For me, Robert Kennedy’s assassination was more emotionally traumatizing than President Kennedy’s. To a 16 year old, the president was the man on the mountain, almost an abstraction. Bobby Kennedy belonged to my generation. Over the summer, I obsessively re-read Kennedy’s writings and campaign speeches. UM was not a hotbed of anti-war activism, and my brother had served in Vietnam, so my feelings about the war were not fully evolved. Robert Kennedy’s death immediately radicalized my stance against the war and America’s Cold War militarism.

I was moved by Kennedy’s admission of his own culpability for early military decisions in Southeast Asia. As he became a vociferous critic of American intervention. Kennedy frequently invoked his favorite Greek poet, Aeschylus:

All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears.

God calls men to heavy reckoning

For overweening pride.

Kennedy’s words and writings searingly resonated with me. Since that summer I have looked at American foreign policy through the prism of the United States acting as an arrogant super power. This prompted me to support McGovern in 1972 and oppose the Iraq War in 2003. Today, I am constantly disturbed by our ongoing military presence in the Middle East, which will only reap more heartache.

In my column for the Miami Hurricane, I mentioned the Kennedy campaign’s focus on the poor as well as on racial reconciliation in America. I had grown up in the white suburbs of New York, and the University of Miami had fewer than 100 black students. My understanding of racial strife in this country was limited to what every American was seeing on television. But I examined Kennedy’s support of Cesar Chavez’s migrant workers, national healthcare, and his concern about the suicide rate among Native Americans. This and the ongoing debate over poverty and institutional racism broadened my awareness that there were, as Michael Harrington wrote, “two Americas.”

When I was elected to the Legislature in 1982 from a relatively affluent and progressive part of then-Dade County, I felt a deep commitment to the “others” in our state. I passionately worked to pass indigent healthcare legislation, civil-rights protection for AIDS victims in early 1985 and child-support enforcement for women. In my final term, I pushed through a restaurant tax to support the homeless in our community.

I understand now that while John F. Kennedy inspired me to spend a lifetime in politics, Robert Kennedy gave me the world view, an ideology, to do it. Kennedy told South African students opposing apartheid in 1966, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope … building a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.”

My journey with Robert Kennedy is personal, but not unique. He provided a moral compass for so many political activists and ordinary citizens of my generation, one so many of use continue to follow, and honor, 50 years after his death.

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.