Courage, Leadership, and Heart Needed in Ferguson

Here is the question of the hour: knowing that violence looms in Ferguson, as an unknown Grand Jury ruling hangs in the offing; that racial tensions are high; that sides are even now being taken; that both the citizenry and others are armed to the teeth; that senseless violence is predicted from all quarters; and that national leaders of all stripes could help suppress that tendency...where are those national leaders?  Why are they not in Ferguson, walking the streets, working to calm mounting tensions?

There was a time in America, not so long ago, when our leaders spoke from the heart – not from an omnipresent, tail-wagging “teleprompter.”  They took risks.  They were not cardboard.  There was a time when we saw ourselves – every one of us – as Americans first.  We were not first black or white, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or indifferent, not defined by sexual orientation, political party, or what we disliked most about ourselves in others. 

We would have laughed (or cried) at the current reflection of who we have become, as if we no longer can see the world in multiple dimensions, only in a disharmonious variety of single dimensions.  Today, we all have one-issue trump cards – here an economic or technology voter, there a health care or weather voter.  There was a time when we were not focused on what divided us.  We were not focused on dysfunction, although there was more of it.  

Less was more.  We had greater patience with each other, in the process became bigger.  We did worried not about being cold to a neighbor, but rather whether our neighbor was cold.  We did not point out our virtues and neighbor’s flaws.  Our neighbors, we knew, were no more flawed than we.  We were more about heart, less about getting what we could while getting was good, and more about doing what we could while doing was possible. 

And we listened.  We listened better to our leaders, because they were real – in both parties.  We knew the put-up job.  We could tell the difference between those who loved individual liberty and those who quietly mocked individualism.  Why?  Because we were all individuals – and we knew it.  We shared a common secret: love of freedom and individuality.  And in that, we were Americans.

This column turns on a single, powerful, and timely – too timely – speech.  That speech was not given by the foregoing leaders.  It was not the work of modern blame-gamers, political manipulators.  It came from the heart.  There was no emphasis on “I,” just a plea.  That plea came from a worried, personally secure American, who happened to be attorney general, but who saw – from the perspective of his own pain and weakness – the human weakness of a nation.     

He pleaded for peace on the streets of a big city, for nonviolence, and for American idealism.  He pleaded the cause of hope in a moment of hopelessness, restraint in a time of passion, respect in a time of tragedy.  This leader might have been Ed Meese, or the president he served, Ronald Reagan.  They both saw us through crises.  It might have been a recognized conservative.  But it was not.    

The spontaneous six-minute speech was given, in the heart of Indianapolis on a gut-wrenching night – the same night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated – by Robert Kennedy.  He was a former senator, attorney general, and candidate for the presidency before he too fell to an assassin.  And why is that speech worth revisiting?  Because, familiar with tragedy, Kennedy went to the sound of gunfire, to brewing discontent.  He went there and spoke to all who would hear him, Americans black and white.  Why?  To prevent predictable violence.  He spoke earnestly and from within the crowd, not above it.  He did not hang back in a distant location. 

That night, Robert Kennedy reminded us that we were Americans.  And this meant something.  He pleaded against “polarization,” against “division,” not for it.  He pleaded for “understanding,” for listening to each other, not for the self-defeating consolation of violent revenge.

“In this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a Nation we are.”  Are we falling to “bitterness,” “hatred,” and “revenge,” or are we made of something bigger?  Can we, black and white, “make an effort, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love?”  In a pithy moment, Kennedy tells the crowd, “I had a member of my family killed.”  There is no arrogance.  From memory, he quotes “my favorite poet … Aeschylus.”  No notes.  “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.” 

This young leader is almost done.  “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.”  He casts no blame, asks universal forgiveness.  “So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King … but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion.”

Final words:  “… the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land … let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”  And then he is gone.  No pause for adulation.

And guess what.  Cities rioted.  But not the city to whom he spoke.  In that speech, and others by bullhorn, he had a knack for reaching people.  He worked to calm the unruly soul of Man, appealed to our love of America.  Those around him, black and white, Democrat and Republican, listened.  Because they knew he was right.  They knew who they were, even as we know – when we pause – who we are.  We are Americans, not a subset.  Two months later, he would fall to the forces against which he spoke, a sad and validating irony.

In a prior day, real leaders went to the front – to the place where Americans were divided or where violence was threatened – and they turned the volume down.  They did not ignore it, did not walk away, and certainly did not say things that fanned it.  They did not live in ivory castles when the action was in the field, or take cold comfort in blaming and preparing to blame. 

Which brings us to this hour: if the current attorney general is not willing to speak up for peace and calm in a brewing Ferguson, maybe the nominee for attorney general has a Robert Kennedy moment before her?  Or maybe this is bigger.  Maybe when Americans are divided, especially when we are divided, when circumstances threaten to divide us further, real leaders – of all stripes – step up.  

So where are these men and women of real heart?  Where are those willing to walk tense streets, deliver “wisdom” to prevent another tragedy?  Where are those whose voices could be heard – even now, like Senators Cruz, Paul, Portman, and Rubio; Governors Bush, Walker, and Christie; or candidate Carson?  Former Senators Clinton and Webb, Vice President Biden, Governor O’Malley, others who know they have the power to gain purchase on the streets and air waves of this tormented city?  Where are our Republican and Democrat leaders – those who lay claim to the communications acumen of Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy? 

Being American is what it is about.  Big ideals animate that powerful idea.  Leaders rise in moments of approaching crisis to remind us of those ideals.  When will we remember that some battles are best won before waged, some words best delivered from the heart, not a teleprompter?  If ever there was a moment for action, with sand nearly gone in Ferguson’s hourglass, this is it.  If Robert Kennedy were alive today, or Ronald Reagan for that matter, he would speak to us about our better angels – and do it from there.

Robert Charles was assistant secretary of state under Colin Powell, former counsel and staff director to Speaker Hastert, and a Washington, D.C.-based consultant.

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