The Way He Was
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, the seventh of Bobby's 11 children, is determined to mark the 25th anniversary of his death in a way that will help make her father's message live again. She has organized 12 conferences around the country, called A Vision for America, that will explore how RFK's ideas can be used today. There will also be a public memorial service, a Mass of Courage and Reconciliation, on June 6 at Arlington National Cemetery, where her father is buried and where family members and friends will read excerpts from his speeches.
Harcourt Brace is commemorating the anniversary with the publication of a new book, Robert Kennedy: The Last Campaign, which includes never-before-seen photographs by Bill Eppridge—some reproduced here—-from the 1968 campaign. The book also contains an introduction by President Clinton.
Kerry, 33, executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and her husband, Andrew Cuomo, 35, son of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are staying at Kerry's childhood home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Va. She spoke with reporter Margie Sellinger about her childhood and the pictures from The Last Campaign.
My father brought us on all of his campaigns. It was natural for the children to be with him and share his vision of what he wanted America to be. What seems to me rather unique is that he really integrated his family life with his work life. He had his Justice Department office plastered with drawings by all of us and would often bring us there.
He'd also bring home people from the Administration, colleagues from the Senate, reporters and columnists he admired. It was a wonderful way to grow up. I remember John Glenn coming to our house and just being enamored with him. He must have been awfully patient, because there were kids shooting questions at him about what it was like in space.
There was always a tremendous sense of justice that pervaded my father's life. I remember the times I would have a spat with a brother. When my father was home he was the one you had to go to, and he always followed the same pattern: My brother would have to listen to me tell my side of the story and then I would have to listen to him. In doing that, we understood there actually were two sides to it—and that was a very, very important lesson in justice. Then he'd have us kiss and make up.
His concern for the poor also made him very special. When I was a child. his work with Native Americans was most inspiring to me. He would come home from a reservation and tell us about what he had seen. I'm told that when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up I would say, "I want to be an Indian." And in fact my father got a Comanche woman to come to our home and initiate me into the tribe when I was about 7. My name was Tsah Wakie (One who looks for the best in everything).
I remember sitting in front of the TV and watching Washington burn after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And my father was trying to explain how very, very close this was and why people were doing this—that while the actions were wrong, the reasons for it were understandable and that we had some sort of responsibility for that.
I also remember going on a trip down the Colorado River when I was 7. In the middle of the Grand Canyon we found the ugliest dog you'd ever seen—someone had abandoned it four days earlier, and it had been starving. My father handed it to me, and I held this dog in my arms and calmed it down and grew to love it tremendously. After the trip it was in the newspapers that we had found this dog—we named her Rocky—and the owner came and took her away from me. I remember just crying and crying and reeling horrendous heartbreak. Then on the day we were flying home, we were all in this airplane, and my father was late. He finally came with this big cardboard box and walked straight over to me. In the box was a big straw hat. I lifted it up, and there was my dog. He had somehow saved the day and brought ibis animal back to me. I suddenly had an understanding of this overwhelming love he had for me. I felt I was somebody tremendously special that he could have done something magical for me.
Growing up a Kennedy is not different except that in times of joy or tragedy, private moments are made public. But it is also very heartening because inevitably there is tremendous support from people saying they understand or share the moment with you—and that's a source of strength.
My father's words, too, come back to me in my work for human rights: "Eaeh 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." Made during a trip to South Africa in 1966, that is one of the best human rights speeches I've heard anywhere.
Yes, I do think the country would be different today had he lived. I think the Vietnam War would have ended a lot earlier and there would never have been a Watergate. His policies and programs really were devoted to the cities. He would be horrified by what he would see today—crack, violence, children having children—and I can only imagine some of these issues might have been addressed with a little bit more vigor.
I remember when he began to talk about a presidential bid, the consensus among my brothers and sisters was "As long as we don't have to leave Hickory Hill and live in the White House." My father wasn't afraid, despite what happened to my uncle. He often quoted Edith Hamilton on Aeschylus: "Life for him was an adventure, and perilous indeed, but men were not made for safe havens." Taking risks and moving on was something my father had to do.