Remembering Our Father

By Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 05/06/08):

Forty years ago, as he was celebrating his victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. To mark the occasion, Op-Ed editors invited his children to share their memories of him.

1) Lessons of the Magnolia Tree

By Kerry Kennedy, the founder of the human rights organization Speak Truth to Power and the author of the forthcoming Being Catholic Now.

My father sat upstairs in his study, working in the one room of our sprawling house that we children could not storm into unless it was a matter of utmost urgency. I now know that the big brown desk was where he wrote his books and often drafted important speeches or new legislation. On the day etched in my memory, all I knew was that I needed his immediate attention.

My brother Michael and I had been re-enacting World War II in the ancient magnolia tree that dominated the sloping back yard of Hickory Hill, our 19th-century white brick farmhouse in McLean, Va. As usual, 7-year-old Michael had demanded to be the victorious American, whereas I, two years younger, weaker and not nearly as good a shot, was again assigned the lesser role of the doomed German. The branches of this tree were so perfectly spaced as to accommodate two tree houses, and the Americans held the more elaborate fort that dominated the top branches.

I vainly scaled upward as my brother lobbed down volley upon volley of magnolia pods — which eerily resembled hand grenades but felt more like boulders as they bounced off my head. After taking one direct hit too many, I scrambled out of the tree and ran for the house, bounding up the red-carpeted stairs and bursting into my father’s study without pausing to knock, tears streaming and the white satin bow atop in my hair hopelessly askew.

My father turned from the desk and as I tumbled into his arms, he hugged me and kissed me and told me he loved me. As I recounted my woes he wiped away my tears and told me to go get Michael. I knew right then that justice would prevail. After all, my father was always fair, not to mention being the attorney general of the United States of America!

When we returned, Daddy told me that I could not interrupt, that I had to listen while Michael told his side of the story. Then Michael had to listen while I told mine. I don’t recall the details of what our father then said, but I know his judgment was in some way difficult to accept. Even at my young age, I was forced to see that I wasn’t all right, and my brother was not all wrong. Ultimately, Daddy made us kiss and make up and go to our rooms to read for an hour.

As an adult, I recognize that the lessons my father taught us children mirrored the beliefs he wanted the nation to embrace — that we must build a system of justice which enjoys the confidence of all sides; that peace is not something to pray for, but something everyone has the responsibility to create every day; and that we must muster the courage to face the truth about ourselves as well as those we consider our enemies.

There was no quality my father admired more than courage, save perhaps love. I remember when one night after dinner he picked up the battered poetry book that was always somewhere at his side and read aloud Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” We listened aghast to the story of the soldiers whose commander orders them to ride into an ambush. They know they will be slaughtered, but they obey the command anyway. My father then explained that he and my mother were going on a trip and challenged us to memorize the poem while they were away. I did not win that contest, but one famous stanza has remained with me:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of death

Rode the six hundred.

You may wonder why a father would ask his expanding brood of what would become 11 children to memorize a poem about slaughter and war. I think there were three reasons. He wanted us to share his love of literature and he wanted us to embrace challenges that appear daunting. But most of all, he believed it imperative to question authority, and those who failed that lesson did so at their peril.

Forty years after Robert Kennedy’s last campaign, I think those are also the lessons he would have liked to impart to all Americans. Facing daunting challenges both nationally and globally, we must rise to meet them armed with courage, love and an abiding commitment to justice, yet girded with a healthy sense of skepticism.

2) Taking ‘No’ for an Answer

By Joseph P. Kennedy II, the chairman and president of the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation.

I remember how my father listened with rare empathy to everyone. He paid a lot of attention, for instance, to Putt, an old man who lived in a rest home at the end of Sea Street in Hyannis. A gas attack during World War I had left Putt unable to hear or speak. He spent most every day riding around Lewis Bay in a little rowboat with a five-horsepower engine.

If Putt spotted us sailing to Egg Island for a picnic, he’d pull alongside, and my father would pass him a sandwich, a bag of chips and a beer. Putt would follow the sailboat until we gently beached, and then he and my father would stand together on the sand, their heads leaning toward one another.

Years later, in the same way, my father sat down with Appalachian coal miners — tough men, covered in soot, sharing their aches and ambitions. In a famous photo of him with his arm resting easily on the shoulder of a miner, he could be talking to Putt.

I once traveled with him to a Navajo reservation and watched in the dim light of a rundown adobe dwelling as he leaned over to hear an old man talk about the struggles of his people. I heard Native Americans share their pain as if they somehow knew, because of a certain sorrow in his heart coupled with an active and tough mind, that my father would do everything to help.

So it happened wherever he went — on the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, in a square in Warsaw or in the well of the Senate. And wherever he could, he acted. After visiting Bed-Stuy, he pressed his campaign donors to direct investments into one of New York City’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods.

After my grandfather had a stroke, he was paralyzed on his right side and could say just one word, “no,” which he repeated over and over. For nine years, this larger-than-life figure, this once strong, powerful man, could say nothing more. But his son would have long political discussions with him. They talked about running for president — the mood of the electorate, the dynamics of the various states. All you could hear from my grandfather was “no,” but repeated with a nuance that allowed my father to discern his still sharp political assessments.

That same quality made each of his children feel deeply loved and made all nine of our dogs worship him, especially Freckles, who followed him on the campaign trail. Robert Kennedy had a wonderful way of allowing others to tell him how the world looked through their eyes. Indeed, so many people across this nation were grateful for his belief in their worth — they knew his faith in the humanity of his fellow Americans.

He lived by a moral compass that others, less certain of their direction, looked to for guidance. Even if what he asked was hard to hear and heed, he gave others the strength to believe not just in his guidance but in themselves.

The truth is, we all just plain loved him.

3) The Delta in Our Home

By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

The spring Saturday was lovely. I was on the rope swing, waiting for my father to come home and for all of us to be called to dinner. Usually, on such a warm weekend day, our family would eat outdoors. My father would grill steaks smothered in mustard. But he was returning late from a trip to the Mississippi Delta, where he’d been conducting Senate hearings on hunger. It was 1967, and I was 15.

After the bell rang, I got to the dining room before the others. The long table was set with linen, silver and crystal. Painted portraits of my brothers and sisters hung on the walls. And suddenly, my father entered. He looked haunted and started talking to me, shaking his head in distress as he described the people he’d met in the Delta. “I was with a family who live in a shack the size of this dining room,” he told me. “The children’s stomachs were distended and had sores all over them. They were starving.” He was outraged that this could happen in the world’s richest country.

“Do you know how lucky you are?” he asked me, and then repeated, “Do you know how lucky you are? You have a great responsibility. Do something for these children. Do something for our country.”

I can’t remember what I said. I’m afraid I may have asked how hunger could make people’s stomachs larger. I wanted to think about how I might act on his advice, but for the moment felt only the importance of his giving it.

I thought of another time when he’d given me very personal advice, in a letter after his brother Jack was killed. “Dear Kathleen,” he’d written then. “You seem to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a special responsibility. A responsibility … to be kind to others and work for our country. Love, Daddy.”

After our brief exchange, he went upstairs to change. During dinner, he spoke again at length about the families he’d met in the Delta. He reiterated his message of personal responsibility, which was familiar to the whole family. My father had often quoted St. Luke, that from those who have been given much, much will be expected. And he made a point to take us to places where people lived in circumstances that were far different from ours — on Indian reservations, in Harlem, in Appalachia.

But on that evening his outrage was especially obvious, his sense of injustice palpable. And he wanted his children to feel the desperation of those children the way he had — and to see the need to do something positive about it.