The New York Times
June 5, 2008
Taking ‘No’ for an Answer
Joseph P. Kennedy II
I remember how my father listened with rare empathy to everyone. He paid a lot of attention, for instance, to Putt, an old man who lived in a rest home at the end of Sea Street in Hyannis. A gas attack during World War I had left Putt unable to hear or speak. He spent most every day riding around Lewis Bay in a little rowboat with a five-horsepower engine.
If Putt spotted us sailing to Egg Island for a picnic, he’d pull alongside, and my father would pass him a sandwich, a bag of chips and a beer. Putt would follow the sailboat until we gently beached, and then he and my father would stand together on the sand, their heads leaning toward one another.
Years later, in the same way, my father sat down with Appalachian coal miners -- tough men, covered in soot, sharing their aches and ambitions. In a famous photo of him with his arm resting easily on the shoulder of a miner, he could be talking to Putt.
I once traveled with him to a Navajo reservation and watched in the dim light of a rundown adobe dwelling as he leaned over to hear an old man talk about the struggles of his people. I heard Native Americans share their pain as if they somehow knew, because of a certain sorrow in his heart coupled with an active and tough mind, that my father would do everything to help.
So it happened wherever he went -- on the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, in a square in Warsaw or in the well of the Senate. And wherever he could, he acted. After visiting Bed-Stuy, he pressed his campaign donors to direct investments into one of New York City’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods.
After my grandfather had a stroke, he was paralyzed on his right side and could say just one word, “no,” which he repeated over and over. For nine years, this larger-than-life figure, this once strong, powerful man, could say nothing more. But his son would have long political discussions with him. They talked about running for president -- the mood of the electorate, the dynamics of the various states. All you could hear from my grandfather was “no,” but repeated with a nuance that allowed my father to discern his still sharp political assessments.
That same quality made each of his children feel deeply loved and made all nine of our dogs worship him, especially Freckles, who followed him on the campaign trail. Robert Kennedy had a wonderful way of allowing others to tell him how the world looked through their eyes. Indeed, so many people across this nation were grateful for his belief in their worth -- they knew his faith in the humanity of his fellow Americans.
He lived by a moral compass that others, less certain of their direction, looked to for guidance. Even if what he asked was hard to hear and heed, he gave others the strength to believe not just in his guidance but in themselves.
The truth is, we all just plain loved him.