Joe Kennedy III calls Washington Post column invoking RFK ‘grotesque’

"Justice isn’t about what’s comfortable. If one person knew that, it was Bobby Kennedy."

U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy III (D-MA 4th District) speaks at the Fight the Ban: A Rally to Support Transgender Troops on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Washington. (Joy Asico/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)
Rep. Joe Kennedy III speaks at an April rally in Washington, D.C., to support transgender troops. –Joy Asico / AP Images for Human Rights Campaign

Rep. Joe Kennedy III says that a Washington Post columnist’s recent attempt to use his grandfather as a cudgel against the current Democratic Party was “grotesque.”

In his own op-ed Wednesday evening, the Massachusetts congressman responded to conservative columnist and radio host Hugh Hewitt’s opinion piece Saturday in the Post headlined “The party of Robert F. Kennedy is gone.”

Hewitt pointed to the former attorney general and New York senator’s famously moving speech in 1968, in which the then-presidential candidate announced the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to a largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis and called for “love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.”


Kennedy himself was assassinated two months after the speech.

In his article, Hewitt suggested that, in the wake of the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, today’s Democratic Party sought to “score points,” rather than urge peace and healing.

“Every single Democrat missed his or her opportunity to step up, as RFK did, and instead stepped in it,” he wrote, noting that at least five of the Democratic presidential candidates have since called President Donald Trump a white supremacist — a term and accusation that has proven to be complicated.

“I think the rhetoric of the Democratic candidates is incendiary and dangerous, and also politically self-destructive. It is so absurd as to be laughable but for its repetition,” Hewitt continued. “But they do not wish to argue, debate and persuade. They wish to smear and exclude, and they have exploited this week’s shock and fear to do so.”

Four days later, Kennedy took to the Post opinion pages himself, arguing that Hewitt’s attempt to “manipulate” his grandfather’s speech in Indianapolis “to take a political shot against the Democratic Party is grotesque.”

The Newton Democrat also defended his colleagues for calling out Trump, whose rhetoric, particularly with respect to immigration, has been echoed by avowed white supremacists, including the El Paso shooter. And while he has previously accused Trump of “racist” acts and “giving cover” to white supremacists, Kennedy went so far Wednesday to reject the idea that the president could be called “anything other than racist.”


From his op-ed:

… before we get back to my grandfather, there are a few other things Hewitt got wrong. First, that a president who keeps black and brown children in cages, terrorizes black and brown families with military-style raids and tries to block black and brown voices from voting can be called anything other than racist.

Second, that the injury we should lament comes from being called a racist, rather than being the subject of racism itself. Hewitt’s problem is those of us speaking out against President Trump’s assault on America’s character (language allegedly “intended to marginalize and exile”), rather than a president who is actively marginalizing and literally exiling those who don’t look or live or love or pray like him.

Third, that racism manifests only in its worst offenders. This is the most pernicious assumption of white America, a familiar display of our stubborn privilege. That no matter how deeply we benefit from a system designed to advantage white over black, we can somehow wash our hands of the suffering that system inflicts.

Kennedy wrote that reckoning with systemic racism is “hard and messy work” and argued that his grandfather “didn’t shy away from deep wounds,” citing examples in which RFK personally visited sharecroppers, labor activists, poverty-stricken Native American communities, and that upset crowd in Indianapolis.

“But justice isn’t about what’s comfortable,” he wrote. “If one person knew that, it was Bobby Kennedy.”

Kennedy said that Hewitt was correct in one respect: “It was a good speech that night.” However, the congressman wrote that Hewitt “fundamentally misunderstands why.”

“My grandfather’s words landed not because he was trying to speak for all Americans but because he was fighting for a nation where silenced Americans could speak for themselves,” he wrote.

Not unlike many Democrats today, Kennedy said that RFK’s “moral clarity” came from “anger” over “blatant racism” and the persistent inequities stemming from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregationists in his own party.

Rather than his grandfather’s legacy, Kennedy said what’s at stake today is how the current generation will be remembered when faced with injustice.

“A politician’s speech will not save us,” he wrote.