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Don't Mourn—Analyze!

RFK: His Words for Our Times: This book’s reappearance in 2018, after being originally published in 1993, could not be more perfectly timed. A compilation of Robert F. Kennedy’s major public statements (including articles, speeches, impromptu remarks to media and others, etc.), its 442 pages cover the years from 1948 on, ending with Kennedy’s remarks just prior to his assassination in 1968.

While the book is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, co-editors Richard C. Allen and the late Edwin Guthman have seen that it stands for something more in the current political climate. RFK: His Words for Our Times will be for many readers like the welcome, delicious equivalent of a large pitcher of iced water during a long, smoggy summer heat wave.

Each chapter provides numerous examples of Kennedy’s eloquent love of country, willingness to take controversial positions, and well-expressed belief that people of goodwill can cooperate to overcome problems of all kinds. The catalogue of issues covered runs from foreign policy, the Vietnam war and the Cold War to ending racial injustice, allevation of urban and rural poverty and Kennedy’s fight against organized crime.

Alongside the voluminous direct quotations from Kennedy himself, the book also provides useful historical, political and biographical context, enriched by personal reminiscences from those who knew Kennedy, including his speechwriters Peter Edelman and Adam Walinsky.

RFK: His Words for Our Times will therefore be heartily enjoyed by all those seeking relief from what Joe Klein has condemned as the “sterilized speechifying, insipid photo ops and idiotic advertising” that in his view pollute contemporary politics.

As much as this book is a celebration of great speeches, it also provokes readers to think about the audiences for those speeches. On that topic, present throughout the book are insights into “the Kennedy alliance that might have been,” as journalist Jack Newfield once put it. That is, the budding mass movement of whites, blacks, labor, youth and other constituencies that was taking shape during Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the Presidency. The theoretical scaffolding for that alliance was erected through Kennedy’s speeches and statements in the years prior to his run.

United around shared matters of national concern, as articulated through Kennedy’s speeches, that alliance clearly had the potential to put him into the White House—had he lived.

Because of Kennedy’s tragic early death, some may be tempted to read the book as a long lament. Triggering a feeling of loss, or exploiting some nostalgia for a more idealistic time—that is not, however, as far as this reviewer can tell, the intent behind RFK: His Words for Our Times.

Similarly, to treat Kennedy’s words like some kind of special antique—like a classic car to be exhibited, marveled at and then returned to storage—is also to misread the book. Doing so amounts to denying the power of those words.

To paraphrase the old labor slogan, readers of this book should not mourn, but should analyze.

Why do Kennedy’s words continue to crackle with such power? Fifty years after his death, why do these speeches still radiate energy? Kennedy spoke at a time of momentous events and far-reaching change, but it is not simply a matter of the occasions when he spoke that have inspired people to re-read his speeches.

Much of the lasting interest in Kennedy, one might surmise, has to do with “the Kennedy alliance that might have been.” RFK: His Words for Our Times helps us to trace Kennedy’s ongoing efforts to help different constituencies understand what they had in common, as Americans, in terms of concrete economic demands, for example, rather than pandering to their perceived separate interests, or flattering their unique identities.

This book, therefore, should not be approached as a eulogy for a fallen statesman. Its contents might be better read, perhaps, as a blueprint for the future.

Note: Readers who enjoy RFK: His Words For Our Times may be interested in two additional anthologies of Kennedy’s remarks - To Seek a Newer World and Robert F. Kennedy: Apostle of Change.