A ceremony Wednesday to pay tribute to Robert F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination marked a homecoming of sorts for former President Clinton, who spoke at Kennedy’s graveside on the same occasion 25 years ago.
In 1993, Clinton’s speech at Arlington National Cemetery was imbued with the optimism of a newly elected president. He invoked Kennedy’s directive to Americans that “we can do better.” And he called on the nation to “redeem the promise of the America we then feared we were losing.”
Twenty-five years later — his own presidency marred by impeachment, his wife’s presidential ambitions dashed by President Trump’s election and the country perhaps the most divided it has been since the late 1960s — Clinton says Kennedy’s legacy is more relevant than ever.
Clinton told the crowd of 4,000 gathered at the Memorial Amphitheater that Kennedy’s vision was one of humanity in an era of upheaval and sorrow. “In another time of hope and heartbreak and division,” Kennedy’s words are “truer today than they were then,” Clinton said.
“[Kennedy] visibly, instinctively, lived a life of encounter. The life of the outstretched hand, not the clenched fist,” Clinton said. “He lived it in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, and Watts and Bed-Stuy, on Native American reservations, among farmworkers who had no one else to look to, and all the way to the townships of South Africa still groaning under apartheid.”
On June 5, 1968, just days before their Georgetown University graduation, Clinton and his roommate watched Kennedy win the California Democratic primary. In his victory speech at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy called upon a crowd of supporters to work together to solve “the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment in our society.”
Moments later, he was shot by 24-year-old Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. Kennedy died the following day at age 42.
His assassination seared a nation still reeling from the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that April — and the killing of Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963.
For Clinton, Kennedy’s convictions “burned away like a blowtorch all those layers of complacency.”
In his speech Wednesday, Clinton also praised the work of youth activists such as Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting who has since emerged as a gun control advocate. Now one of the leaders of the student-led group March For Our Lives, Gonzalez read an RFK quote at the ceremony.
“She and her generation are the first people who have made sensible, sane gun safety laws a voting issue in America,” Clinton said.
Clinton acknowledged that although his own administration passed a 10-year assault weapons ban, it failed to make gun control a national conversation.
David Mercer, 57, a longtime Democratic strategist from Washington in attendance on Wednesday, said that Clinton’s remarks on gun control were poignant, recognizing the power of young activists working today in the image of Robert Kennedy.
“It was from the heart and soul that we’re going to get the change,” Mercer said. “The common sense that ‘I don’t need to die when I go to school.’”
Clinton’s speech came in the wake of a testy interview with NBC News’ Craig Melvin that aired Monday night. In the interview, Clinton said that had his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky occurred in the #MeToo era, he would not have responded any differently. He added that he had never privately apologized to Lewinsky and saw no need to now. Clinton did apologize to Lewinsky publicly.
For Shelley Castle, 49, a legislative analyst from Washington in attendance on Wednesday and a longtime admirer of both Clinton and Kennedy, the former president’s remarks earlier this week were disappointing. She said she hopes to see Clinton “embrace the #MeToo movement a bit more.”
Like other men of his generation and politicians today, she said, Clinton should heed Kennedy’s enduring call to action, “We can do better.”