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Missing the Moment

October 31, 2018 by Sean O'Brien
Image:Robert F. Kennedy appearing before Platform Committee, August 19, 1964.jpg (Wikimedia); President Donald Trump speaks a rally on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

It was a cold Midwestern night but the campaign rally was filled to capacity. The man they had all come to see, the one who’d electrified them with promises and slogans, was huddled backstage with his staff, trying to decide whether to go on with the rally despite the hate-fueled shooting that had just occurred 500 miles away.

He was a figure who’d inspired millions, but he was also leading a party whose electoral success had often relied on hatred and division.  He could have been forgiven for calling it off, as his advisors urged him to do. But he was never much for following advice.

He walked to the podium. But on that cold Indiana night on April 4th, 1968, Bobby Kennedy didn’t stick to the script, the way Donald Trump would 50 years later. He didn’t deliver a canned campaign message as Donald Trump did after learning of the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. He didn’t exhort his followers with circus theatrics, unfounded accusations and coded hate speech, as Donald Trump did in support of Congressman Mike Bost (IL-12).

No. Fifty years ago, Bobby Kennedy asked the crowd of young African American activists to lower their campaign signs. He paused. He told them that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead. He listened to their anguished cry. Then he asked them to work for peace.

I found myself thinking of Kennedy’s remarkable speech when I read of our President’s reaction to the mass shooting of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. After issuing a serviceable statement of sympathy, President Trump congratulated himself for going on with a scheduled campaign rally. He said, “With what happened early today, that horrible, horrible attack in Pittsburgh, I was saying maybe I should cancel both this and that,” but then he remembered, “a friend of mine, great guy, he headed up the New York Stock Exchange on September 11th, and the New York Stock Exchange was open the following day.”

Like so many Trump statements, this is an obvious and provable lie – NYSE was in fact closed for 6 days. But also like so many Trump statements, it’s just not worth arguing over. If he thinks the market opened the next day, so be it. The larger tragedy is that he doesn’t seem to remember what really did happen the day after 9-11.

With smoke and ash still in the skies, the nation came together, not just in platitudes and false gestures but in genuine concern for each other. Regardless of when Wall Street began communicating, main street Americans started talking right away. They developed a new appreciation for their police officers, firefighters and first responders. They displayed the flag not as a partisan battering ram but as a reminder of why the republic endures.

The unity of those days after 9-11 did not last, and neither did the peace Bobby Kennedy and that grieving crowd in Indianapolis achieved for one night in 1968. But the words they shared continue to point the way forward.

“In this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are, and what direction we want to move in,” Kennedy told the distraught young people in front of him. “You can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization.”

“Or,” he continued, his voice cracking, “we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”

Then he recited the words of his favorite poet: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

It is difficult to picture President Donald Trump delivering such remarks. We already know him to be a man that mocks sincerity, faith and wisdom with the venom of a schoolyard bully. The cumulative effect of this caustic leadership is that many of us have forgotten how to recognize our common humanity, our common decency, and our common love of the country we all share.

But we cannot allow one man’s failure to rob us of our national spirit. Nor can we allow the collective cowardice of those who decry his tone but do nothing to diminish his control deter the progress of the American soul.

The President will continue to miss his moments, but we must meet ours. This Tuesday, we need to elect strong, independent voices who will stand up for the country we all still believe in.

Every voice must be heard. Every vote must be counted. And when the dust clears, regardless of result, we must all follow Bobby Kennedy’s advice, “to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love.”

Sean O’Brien is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He has served under both Democratic and Republican administrations as a senior official in the Pentagon, the White House and the House of Representatives. He can be reached via twitter at @hope_history.

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