The Desecration of Robert Kennedy

Anthony Biglan
4 min readJun 6, 2024


On June 6th, 1968, my birthday, I awoke to the news that Robert Kennedy had died. I was the president of the students for Robert Kennedy at the University of Illinois. Like thousands of other people my age I was inspired by Kennedy’s empathy for all of the people who we’re not sharing in the affluence of America at that time — Black, Native American, Mexican American, and poor white people.

Kennedy had not always been that empathetic. But the death of his brother changed him. In his own suffering he came to appreciate the suffering of others. He often quoted the poet Aeschylus

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

As I have worked in my career to advance wellbeing through behavioral science research, I have often quoted Kennedy to inspire us to make our science about enhancing the wellbeing of every person.

In 1966 Kennedy visited South Africa. In a speech to the National Union of South African Students (on June 6) he said “Each 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.”

1968 was a critical year in our history. White support for the Civil Rights movement had started to erode, the war in Vietnam motivated millions of young people to reject many of the standards of middle-class white America. Kennedy saw, as no other political leader did, that the nation was coming apart. Yet he had considerable support from working class white people who had admired his brother. Had he become president, rather than Richard Nixon, we might have prevented the divisions that have consistently been used to advance a fundamentally racist agenda that advanced the interests of the wealthy corporations.

Empathy for others is fundamental to what we needed then and what we need now.

Speaking to an overflowing crowd at the University of Kansas in March of 1968, he criticized how we measure our economy.

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Much of my recent work has focused on the need for behavioral science to move beyond simply focusing on individual wellbeing, while ignoring the contextual conditions — poverty, economic inequality, racism — that are harming so many Americans.

But I can longer cite Kennedy’s wisdom and inspiration, because there are few people under 40 who would think of him when they hear the name “Robert Kennedy.”

As a behavioral scientist, I wish I better understood how Robert Kennedy Jr. could have become so discordant from what his father believed. I suspect it began with genuine empathy for downtrodden, but morphed into conspiracy theories because there so much immediate reinforcement from social media for speaking such nonsense.

We are now in a situation in this country and in the world, where empathy is trumped by anger and aggression. We need to activate millions of people to put aside a small amount of their time and money each week to work for communities, states, and nations that make the wellbeing of every person their fundamental value. Or as Robert Kennedy said, “Let us 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.”

Anthony Biglan is a Senior Scientist at Oregon Research Institute and the President of Values to Action. His book, Rebooting Capitalism: How we can forge a society that works for everyone, describes the reforms that are needed to end inequities and health disparities.

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Anthony Biglan

Anthony Biglan, PhD, is the author of Rebooting Capitalism: How we can forge a society that works for everyone.