Remembering Robert Francis Kennedy (RFK)

June 6, 2018

Remembering Robert Francis Kennedy (RFK)

RFK’s speech in apartheid South Africa remains relevant 50 years after his assassination

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Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) waves goodbye to supporters after his victory speech in a ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of June 5, 1968. He had just won the California primary. Moments later, he would be shot while exiting through a kitchen backstage. (Dick Strobel/AP)

By James Hohmann
with Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: Fifty years ago tonight, Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic primary for president in California. The 42-year-old died of his wounds the next day. Two years to the day before his assassination, on June 6, 1966, the senator delivered the greatest speech of his life at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

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A young student leader named Ian Robertson, who ran the National Union of South African Students, invited Kennedy to come for their Day of Affirmation, when members of the multiracial group, which resisted the apartheid regime, rededicated themselves to the ideals of freedom. The tradition started after the government banned nonwhite students from universities in 1959.

South Africa reluctantly agreed to grant Kennedy a visa to the country, and authorities only relented because they were worried about the optics of turning him away. The government, which had just expelled a New York Times reporter for critical coverage, denied entry to 40 print and television journalists who wanted to cover Kennedy’s trip.

Two weeks before Kennedy’s arrival, the government banned Robertson, 21, from participating in public life for five years because of his activism. The student who had invited Kennedy to speak was forbidden to be in a room with more than one other person at a time. An empty chair was left on stage as a symbol of his absence. “It’s too bad he can’t be with us today,” said Kennedy.

Before an audience that was all white – the government wouldn’t have it any other way – Kennedy delivered a paean to the freedom of speech, protest and the press. “The enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society,” he said. “The essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.”

The speech captured the revolutionary zeitgeist of the 1960s as well as any other. It’s worth revisiting not just for historical purposes, though, but because of the timelessness and universality of its message. Fifty-two years later, Kennedy’s words feel relevant as President Trump attacks NFL players for nonviolently protesting police brutality and racial injustice. They feel important on the morning after the Supreme Court upheld a baker’s refusal to make a cake for a gay couple because of their sexual orientation. They seem vital as the United States deemphasizes democracy promotion as an aim of foreign policy. Each day’s newspaper brings fresh reminders that, as Ted Kennedy put it 12 years after losing his third and final brother, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.

“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans,” RFK said in Cape Town. “It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.”

Robert F. Kennedy – Day of Affirmation Speech [A Tiny Ripple of Hope]

Kennedy opened with some mischievous misdirection. “I came here,” he said, “because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.”

He noted that more progress had been made to give rights to African Americans during the previous five years than in the century before. But he emphasized how much more remained to be done. “We have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in education, in employment, in housing, but these laws alone cannot overcome the heritage of centuries – of broken families and stunted children and poverty and degradation and pain,” Kennedy said, making an observation that, sadly, is still very true today.

Then RFK, a devout Catholic, noted that his own Irish ancestors had faced discrimination only a generation before. “For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, social class or race – discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and command of our Constitution,” he said. “Even as my father grew up in Boston, signs told him that ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Catholic to head the nation. But how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic or of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in slums untaught (and) unlearned, their potential lost forever to the nation and human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?”

Kennedy’s willingness to acknowledge America’s flaws, and her ongoing struggle to live up to her ideals, added credence to his message. “Nations, like men, often march to the beat of different drummers, and the precise solutions of the United States can neither be dictated nor transplanted to others,” he said. “What is important is that all nations must march toward increasing freedom; toward justice for all; toward a society strong and flexible enough to meet the demands of all its own people, and a world of immense and dizzying change.”

RFK prepares to speak in the wee hours of June 6, 1968. (Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank)

RFK prepares to speak in the wee hours of June 6, 1968. (Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank)

The remarks were intended to give hope to political prisoners and young people who dreamed of a brighter future. Kennedy met with Robertson, the student organizer, in his apartment one-on-one, the only arrangement allowed. Kennedy noted that his apartment was probably bugged and told him to stomp on the floor and turn on the faucet to interfere with listening devices placed by the government. When Robertson asked how he knew that, Kennedy replied: “I used to be attorney general.”

Kennedy warned the thousands of young people who could come see him speak that the road ahead would be strewn with dangers. He identified four:

First, is the danger of futility: 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. …

“The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. …

A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.

“For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education.”

The senator, carrying his brother’s torch, concluded with a testament to the power of the individual to make a difference. He noted many of the world’s greatest movements have flowed from the work of a single man. He cited Martin Luther, Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson. Kennedy also invoked Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently won the Nobel Prize and would be assassinated a few months before him in 1968. King had been invited by the same student group, but the government denied his visa because he was black.

But he said most change comes from people who are part of mass movements, like those who resisted Nazism in Europe during World War II or Peace Corps volunteers. “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,” he said. “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.”

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Those words are etched in stone at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. When I visited yesterday morning, there were 150 students gathered by the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s tomb. But despite the impending anniversary, no one stood at his brother’s final resting place nearby. At the bottom of a grassy knoll, placed next to his modest tombstone, there was just one white rose – dotted with raindrops and wrapped in the colors of the Irish flag.

Senator and War Hero John McCain roils Washington

May 13, 2018

Senator John McCain roils Washington for speaking out on torture and a Trump nominee

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been receiving treatment for brain cancer, but he revived a tense debate over torture this week by speaking out against Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA. (Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. John McCain is 2,200 miles from Washington and hasn’t been on Capitol Hill in five months, but he showed this week that he remains a potent force in national politics and a polarizing figure within the Republican Party.

From his home in Sedona, Ariz., where he is receiving treatment for an aggressive and typically fatal type of brain cancer, McCain has challenged and praised the Trump administration’s actions on national security — his voice limited to news releases and Twitter.

But his declaration Wednesday in opposition to Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, has uniquely roiled the political scene. The denunciation has prompted reactions from fellow senators and a former Vice President, as well as intemperate remarks from some Republicans aligned with Trump, including a White House aide.

It has revived the fierce debate over torture and its effectiveness in extracting information in the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — from a man who speaks from experience. McCain was held for 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prison, often deprived of sleep, food and medical care, after a jet he piloted was shot down over Hanoi.

And while McCain is not expected to cast a vote, his opposition to Haspel — based on her record overseeing controversial CIA interrogations of suspected terrorists — has injected uncertainty into her confirmation.

As Republicans and Democrats come to grips with a Senate without him, McCain has remained in Arizona, receiving visitors on the deck of his cabin.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain’s closest friends, returned this week from an extended visit there and described his outlook: “One foot in front of the other.”

“We’re talking about the future,” Graham added. “We talk about what’s going on in the Mideast. I was pleasantly surprised [by his vigor], and I’m looking forward to going back.”

But there is little expectation on Capitol Hill that McCain, 81, will ever return to his old haunt as elder statesman, jet-setting diplomat, military expert and conscience of the Republican Party. That is the subtext of his forthcoming book, “The Restless Wave,” an elegiac volume set for release later this month in which McCain recounts and defends his efforts to expose and prevent torture, combat Russian expansionism and advance the postwar international order.


“Before I leave I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations,” he writes. “I would like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.”

McCain also questions Trump more directly in the book, acknowledging “glimmers of hope” in his foreign policy but expressing grave doubts about Trump himself.

“I’m not sure what to make of President Trump’s convictions,” he writes, adding, “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values.”

McCain’s illness has added gravity to his opposition to Haspel, who as a senior CIA official during the post-9/11 war on terrorism oversaw “enhanced interrogations” of terrorism suspects that some — including McCain — have described as torture.

During a confirmation hearing Wednesday, Haspel pledged that she would never allow the CIA to engage in those types of interrogations under her watch. But she repeatedly declined to characterize the CIA’s previous interrogation methods as immoral, saying they were authorized under the law.

The same day, former vice president Richard B. Cheney — the leading proponent of the interrogation techniques inside the George W. Bush administration — told the Fox Business Network that the CIA’s actions did not amount to torture. He also argued, in contradiction of a Senate report on the issue, that “it worked.”

“If it was my call,” he said, “I’d do it again.”

Hours later, McCain issued a statement declaring that “the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” he said. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

That denunciation infuriated some Republicans who have seen McCain as a motivated opponent of Trump and have moved away from the more idealistic strain of conservatism that McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, has embodied.

The Washington Post and other media outlets reported Thursday that Kelly Sadler, a White House communications official, dismissed McCain’s opposition in a staff meeting, saying, “It doesn’t matter; he’s dying, anyway.”

The White House has not disputed the report. “I’m not going to comment on an internal staff meeting,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday.

Separately Thursday, retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney said during an appearance on the Fox Business Network that torture “worked on John” during McCain’s years in captivity. “That’s why they call him ‘Songbird John,’ ” McInerney said.

Neither Sadler nor McInerney has publicly apologized. Independent accounts of McCain’s time in North Vietnamese captivity do not include any suggestion that he offered material information to his captors, and McCain says the same. He did, by multiple accounts, refuse offers of early release based on his status as the son of a Navy admiral.

His defense fell to his family and some of his old friends in Washington. His wife, Cindy, tweeted a rebuke at Sadler, and daughter Meghan addressed the attacks during Friday’s broadcast of “The View,” the ABC daytime talk show she co-hosts.

“I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in when that would be acceptable, and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job,” she said.

She added: “My father’s legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds and hundreds of years. These people? Nothingburgers. Nobody’s going to remember you.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden issued a sharp statement, accusing the Trump administration of hitting “rock bottom.”

“John McCain is a genuine hero — a man of valor whose sacrifices for his country are immeasurable,” he said. “As he fights for his life, he deserves better — so much better.”

It is possible, though unlikely, that McCain’s opposition to Haspel’s nomination could sink her prospects for confirmation. Most Democrats have opposed her appointment; Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) both cited McCain in announcing their opposition to Haspel on Friday.

Several senators have yet to announce their intentions, and one key vote belongs to Arizona’s junior senator, Republican Jeff Flake, who recently visited McCain in Sedona and said Thursday that McCain’s words were weighing heavily on his decision.

“I’ve always shared McCain’s views on torture and looked up to him on this,” he said.

Sean Sullivan, Seung Min Kim and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.–alert-national&wpmk=1

There is no one who can save Trump from himself

March 29, 2018

There is no one who can save Trump from himself

President Trump at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Friends, Republicans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to praise President Trump, not to place him in an elder-care home. Any concerns regarding my old friend’s mental health are as distant a memory as the Mooch’s reign as communications director. That’s because earlier this year, Americans received blessed assurance — from no less an authority than the White House physician — that their President is of sound mind and herculean body.

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Dr. Ronny L. Jackson ( seen with POTUS 45) is an honorable man, and just more than three months ago, he declared to a watchful world that the Manhattan billionaire’s ability to draw boxes, tell time and identify giraffes in pictures was all the proof he needed that our commander in chief’s mental health was strong. For good measure, Jackson deduced that Trump is so genetically superior to mere mortals, the Queens native could live 200 years if he just stopped supersizing his Big Mac value meals.

And why should we doubt his word? Dr. Ronny L. Jackson is an honorable man.

But how comforting are Jackson’s assurances when America’s President calls into a morning cable-news show and launches into a nearly 30-minute tirade that places himself in greater legal jeopardy while simultaneously encouraging his personal lawyer to turn state’s evidence against him? Trump’s performance last week was so unhinged, it ultimately provoked the increasingly uncomfortable “Fox & Friends” hosts to nudge him off their air.

Trump’s nationally televised rant no doubt left presidential fixer Michael Cohen crestfallen, but it had the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress whom Cohen paid to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump, salivating. Cohen must have been asking himself why anyone would go on television and damage his legal standing in both California and the Southern District of New York. The president’s unmoored performance also prompted prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office to amend their pleadings to insert Trump’s statements. Cohen, we learned from the president, was actually nothing more than a bit player in the Trump Organization’s legal schemes. So how much of his communications with Trump could even be privileged?

Missed ‘Fox & Friends’? Here’s what Trump said on Cohen, Ronny Jackson and more.

President Trump, for the first time, said that Michael Cohen represented him in efforts to silence Stormy Daniels in an interview with “Fox & Friends” April 26.


It goes without saying, but still bears repeating, that any chief executive who surrendered so many statements against interest would immediately be removed. And any man who used a television interview to make such damaging legal admissions would be fired by his lawyers and put to bed by anxious family members. But Jackson has told us Trump is in peak mental health — and the good doctor is an honorable man.

Never mind that this week’s “Fox & Friends” appearance was one of the president’s first television interviews since he sat down with NBC News’s Lester Holt and admitted having fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey in an effort to obstruct the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

And let us not forget that, a few days later, the genetically superior former reality star also confessed to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador that he had fired Comey to end the Russian investigation and relieve “pressure” that had been building from the inquiry. These self-destructive admissions by Trump helped to launch the special counsel’s exploration of possible obstruction of justice.

But despite a multitude of mental lapses, I am no longer concerned by the president’s troublesome behavior, or his Olympian ability to self-incriminate whenever he talks on live TV. Jackson has assured me that Trump is a mentally fit specimen, and Dr. Ronny is an honorable man.

This has to be true because a White House spokesman channeled Shakespeare this week saying just that. “He is an honorable man,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley offered of Jackson in response to allegations that the White House doctor drank alcohol on the job and freely handed out prescription drugs. Jackson denied those accusations, then withdrew his nomination to be Trump’s secretary of veterans affairs.

So I have come to conclude that the fault is not in our stars, but in my own personal misdiagnosis of what ails Donald Trump. Given his recent history of self-defeating statements, the president is clearly not suffering through the early stages of dementia , but is afflicted instead by the political equivalent of self-harm syndrome. What else could explain continued rants so personally destructive that no rational person — let alone a sitting president — would behave in such a way?

This is not about Trumpian political disruption. It is, instead, a study in self-immolation. And one of the many tragedies of Donald Trump’s life is that there is no one on this Earth who can save this tortured man from himself. Not even the honorable Dr. Jackson.