top of page

Stirring eloquence: Teddy Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother Robert in 1968



… “a masterpiece of rhetoric”


Eulogies are a very challenging rhetorical device, but at times, they can be magnificent. That was how I felt after watching the delivery of such a tribute on June 8, 1968, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.


Almost 55 years later, it still evokes a plethora of emotions to me.


This was televised because of the importance and horrific nature of the situation. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated after delivering a victory speech after the California primary a few days earlier.


This was less than five years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.


The delivery of Bobby Kennedy’s eulogy by his brother Teddy, the youngest and then the only living one in the family was stirring and eloquent. Today, it is included in textbooks of rhetoric.


However, the emotion of it made it memorable.




Watching in on television


I remember when I learned on Bobby’s assassination. I was studying for a final exam in history at Penn State-Altoona, and I did not have time to do anything more than try and commit those facts to my memory.


I was commuting, and before driving there, I stopped at a local grocery store, Albarano’s, and there, a distraught Miss Mary Albarano was watching the television, teary-eyed and voice breaking, as she rang up my purchase,


“And now they took Bobby from us.”


Watching the funeral a few days later, I was transfixed but today can remember just the eulogy. I had tears in my eyes and a throbbing in the pit of my stomach as I listened to this, still the best I have ever heard. I have attached the text below and have shared the You Tube version of the delivery.


Because of the beauty and magnificance of the language, I believe that it must have been written, in part, by the great Kennedy speechmaker, Ted Sorensen.


Here is what one writer said about it after Ted Kennedy’s passing,


Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was long known as an eloquent speaker, and his death reminds us that what was arguably his greatest oration was a eulogy — the tribute he delivered following the assassination of his brother Robert F. Kennedy.


The eulogy, delivered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on June 8, 1968, is considered a masterpiece of rhetoric, and it often shows up on lists ranking the greatest American speeches. It has appeared in anthologies. It has been taught in schools.


At times, with its graceful rhythms, the eulogy feels more like poetry than prose: “He gave us strength in time of trouble, wisdom in time of uncertainty, and sharing in time of happiness. He was always by our side.”


Steve Padilla, “Remembering Ted Kennedy’s greatest speech: The eulogy for brother Robert,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 26, 2009



Text


Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Mr. President:


On behalf of Mrs. Kennedy, her children, the parents and sisters of Robert Kennedy, I want to express what we feel to those who mourn with us today in this Cathedral and around the world.


We loved him as a brother, and as a father, and as a son. From his parents, and from his older brothers and sisters -- Joe and Kathleen and Jack -- he received an inspiration which he passed on to all of us. He gave us strength in time of trouble, wisdom in time of uncertainty, and sharing in time of happiness. He will always be by our side.


Love is not an easy feeling to put into words. Nor is loyalty, or trust, or joy. But he was all of these. He loved life completely and he lived it intensely.


A few years back, Robert Kennedy wrote some words about his own father which expresses [sic] the way we in his family felt about him. He said of what his father meant to him, and I quote:


What it really all adds up to is love -- not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. Our awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, we could not help but profit from it.

And he continued,


Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off.


That is what Robert Kennedy was given. What he leaves to us is what he said, what he did, and what he stood for. A speech he made to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966 sums it up the best, and I would like to read it now:


There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember -- even if only for a time -- that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek -- as we do -- nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.


Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth -- not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.


It is a revolutionary world we live in, and this generation at home and around the world has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived. Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation; a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth; a young woman reclaimed the territory of France; and it was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the 32 year-old Thomas Jefferson who [pro]claimed that "all men are created equal."


These men moved the world, and so can we all. 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. 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 that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.


Few 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. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.


For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged, and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that event.


Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.


That is the way he lived. That is what he leaves us.


My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.


Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.


As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:


Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.


American Rhetoric: Edward M. Kennedy’s eulogy for Robert F. Kennedy




22 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page