Inspiring others through political leadership

Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 12:01 a.m.

I don't do it after every November election, but I did this year.

Listen, that is, to live recordings of some of Bobby Kennedy's best speeches.

I play them over and over as I drive to and from work. Why I persist in listening to a voice stilled by an assassin's bullet 35 years ago is still a puzzle. Inevitably, though, it draws me into thoughts of political leadership and to wonder: Where is it now?

When I once tossed my hat into the political ring, I knew little about politics - how it was played, the rules and how to break them, the roles of money and the media, the devious tactics and the ruthless strategies, or how far you had to go to win.

What I did know was that I wanted to improve the community in which I lived; to help people believe that they could be better than they were; to give them hope for the future; to do what had to be done.

Not to win votes, but because it was the right thing to do. To convince the citizens that "politician" did not have to be a derogatory term.

The way to accomplish those goals, I reasoned with untarnished idealism, was by political leadership, so I searched for examples to use in my campaign.

Coincidentally, the twentieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination had just passed, and the media had covered it with journalistic fervor.

Reading that surfeit of retrospective analyses gave me ideas, and I quickly devoured everything I could find on JFK and RFK. What I learned has never left me.

Here's a passage from one of Bobby Kennedy's speeches, given to students at the University of California at Berkeley in October, 1966, the year I graduated from law school.

He began: "The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep and hostile beliefs. Plato said, 'A life without criticism is not worth living.' "

This is the seminal spirit of American democracy. Consider the historical context.

Three-and-a-half years earlier, he helped John F. Kennedy face down the Soviet Union in the closest episode this country ever came to having nuclear bombs rain down on its cities, preventing the annihilation of civilization.

Two-and-a-half years earlier, he watched a funeral procession carry his brother down Pennsylvania Avenue.

And at the time of his speech the United States was engaged in a war in a country few people had heard of, but which resulted a body count of 54,000 dead American soldiers.

He closed with this: "...history will judge you, and, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourselves, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to enlighten and enrich the lives of your fellow man. In your hands, not with presidents or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfillment of the best qualities of your own spirit."

This was not a campaign oration to court voters, because Kennedy was then the junior senator from New York. Yet in this and in every speech, he summoned us to our better nature, gave us his vision and asked us to make it ours, and showed us injustice and told us to make it right.

He appealed to the common denominators of decency and humanity, always with the clear-eyed conviction that he was right. He ignited our belief that the greater good of mankind was not impossible to achieve.

His words weren't directed for or against the political left or the right, they were meant for everyone. Who, in any political party, now guides us with even a glint of that inspiration?

I often wonder, sadly, if the idealism I cannot shed is too anachronistic for the younger generation listening to our present leaders. I hope not. And I hope that a few will share my belief of what political leadership means:

A political leader should have the ability to touch and reach everyone, the poor, the middle class and the affluent, and to bring out the best in all.

A political leader should seek common ground among divergent opinions. Failing that, he or she should follow his or her convictions, regardless of the consequences.

A political leader should articulate a meaningful vision to the people of what could be and how to get there. A political leader should be more interested in moving forward, rather than to the left or to the right.

A political leader should try to draw the people together by common opportunities for equality and a desire for better conditions of life for everyone.

Finally, a political leader should challenge and inspire all of us to be better than we are.

R. Jerome Sanford is a federal prosecutor who lives in Gainesville.

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