Spent a magical few days with my family – always too short of a good time – in suburban D.C. for Christmas and had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Arlington National Cemetery.
I hadn’t been there since I was a girl but as with anything that is ingrained, I found it washing over me, moving me as it did in the old days – the rows of crystalline marble headstones; the deep-veined names etched on them; the commanding views of the city that crown the serpentine climb to the Federal-style Arlington House, a.k.a. The Robert E. Lee Memorial, once the home of the gallant Confederate general and President George Washington’s descendants.
As I made the climb, I was struck by the grave markers, some containing a brief record of the departed’s military and civilian achievements, others containing nothing but a last name, the bearer’s deeds lost in time.
Along the way, I paused at the eternal flame that lights the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, flanked by the graves of their first and last children, an unnamed baby daughter and son Patrick.
On the path to the left are the graves of JFK brothers Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a World War II bomber pilot, and Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy, marked by simple white crosses – as is perhaps the most moving of the brothers’ graves, that of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
His faces a low gray wall that contains some of the words he spoke extemporaneously in Indianapolis the night of April 4, 1968 amid his presidential bid after he learned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Kennedy had been cautioned by police and aides against addressing those who had gathered, many of whom would be hearing about King’s death for the first time. But he decided to persevere, in one of the great, from-the-heart speeches – acknowledging the black crowd’s understandable anger toward King’s white assassin, James Earl Ray, and his own toward his brother John’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
That was vintage Bobby, and the reason you either loved or hated him but couldn’t sit on the sidelines and be dispassionate. He wasn’t afraid of raw emotions, afraid to say what everyone was thinking.
Nor did he deem it imprudent to quote Aeschylus to the throng. The ancient Greek poet-playwright of “The Oresteia” – recommended by his bookish sister-in-law, Jackie – became a favorite in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination.
These words from Aeschylus, which RFK quoted that night, are enshrined on the wall opposite his grave:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Some of what he himself said that night has also been written in stone:
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
Robert Kennedy’s words resonate now more than ever in the aftermath of the shootings in Ferguson and New York City, which humorist Dave Barry, in the sober, cutting way of the great humorists, described in his year-in-review piece for the Dec. 28 Washington Post Magazine cover as “the timeless Kabuki theater of American racial relations… that could have been written five years ago, or 10, so there is no risk that anybody will say, do or think anything remotely unexpected, or emerge in any way changed.”
Sadly, Bobby’s words and life became part of that theater. Two months later, almost to the day of his Indianapolis speech, he himself would be felled by an assassin, Sirhan Sirhan.
Walking around Arlington, looking at the markers, reading those words, you realize that our horror movie-loving public got it wrong.
It is the living who haunt the dead.