An early example of this was his relationship with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Months after joining McCarthy in 1953, he broke with the Communist hunter. Kennedy told McCarthy that his reckless and abusive conduct was destroying him. Within months, Kennedy was working actively against McCarthy. As Democratic counsel on the investigating committee, he ended up drafting the resolution that led to McCarthy’s censure.
Kennedy’s evolving position on civil rights similarly highlights his ability to learn through experience. At first, he viewed the Freedom Riders as a national and political embarrassment. He thought the civil rights activists were hurting the image of the United States during the Cold War. All this changed, however, when he saw the hatred of those opposing desegregation and the violence he witnessed against civil rights activists by fire hoses and police dogs.
Bloodied in battle, Kennedy became a strong ally in the cause.
Kennedy’s evolving position on civil rights similarly highlights his ability to learn through experience.
Kennedy showed the same political growth in the heat of the Cuban missile crisis. After being shown the aerial photographs of Russian nuclear weapons sites, he advocated for bombing the Cuban launch sites. But upon realizing that this would mean killing hundreds or even thousands of Cubans and many Russians, he began to look for an alternative. He didn’t want the United States conducting, as he put it, a “Pearl Harbor and reverse.”
Working with this brother, he secretly met with a Soviet agent and proposed the U.S. withdraw its missiles from Turkey in exchange for Moscow removing theirs from Cuba. The swap worked. With cooler heads prevailing, war between the U.S. and the USSR was averted.
This was what set Robert Kennedy apart. At times a hothead, he had the ability to step back, give a matter some thought, learn from the experience and discern a better option. Further, Kennedy’s compassion for society’s marginalized, his desire to unite working people of all backgrounds and his willingness to learn, all make him the perfect antidote for what’s wrong today.
Kennedy cared for the people too often ignored, worked hard to unify us and had the humility to recognize that the first idea that came into his head was not necessarily the best.
Chris Matthews is host of MSNBC’s Hardball and author of “Bobby Kennedy — A Raging Spirit.”