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Remarks on Presenting the Robert F. Kennedy Medal to Mrs. Ethel Kennedy

June 05, 1981

The President. Mrs. Kennedy, the Congress has authorized the presentation of a medal for you in recognition of the distinguished and dedicated service which your husband, Robert Kennedy, gave to the government and to the people of the United States.

Robert Kennedy's service to his country, his commitment to his great ideals, and his devotion to those less fortunate than himself are matters now for history and need little explanation from me. The facts of Robert Kennedy's public career stand alone. He roused the comfortable. He exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen, and renewed and enriched the American conscience.

Those of us who had our philosophical disagreements with him always appreciated his wit and his personal grace. And may I say I remember very vividly those last days of the California primary and the closeness that had developed in our views about the growing size and unresponsiveness of government and our political institutions. Among the last words he spoke to this Nation that night in Los Angeles were, "What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis, and that is what has been going on within the United States—the division, the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the divisions, whether it's between blacks and whites, between poor and more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam-is that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country."

Obviously, many of you here knew him better than most. You knew him as husband, as brother, as father, and uncle. He wrote to his son, Joseph, on the day of President Kennedy's death, "Remember all the things that Jack started. Be kind to others that are less fortunate than we and love our country." And it is in the final triumph of Robert Kennedy that he used his personal gifts to bring this message of hope and love to the country, to millions of Americans who supported and believed in him. "Come my friends," he liked to quote the Tennyson lines, "it's not too late to seek a newer world." And this is how we should remember him, beyond the distinguished public service or our own sadness that he is gone.

His friend, composer John Stuart, said about him what he said about the first fallen Kennedy and about us: that when a chill wind takes the sky, we should remember the years he gave us hope, for they can never die.

So, Mrs. Kennedy, this medal has been waiting patiently to be presented.

Mrs. Kennedy. Thank you so much. Senator Kennedy. Mr. President and Mrs. Reagan and friends of my brother here at this ceremony and everywhere, on behalf of Ethel and her children and all the members of our family, let me thank you, Mr. President, for this great honor that you have given to Robert Kennedy. And it is appropriate that he should receive it from you, for he understood so well that the common love of our country transcends all party identification and all partisan difference. And you should know that after he debated you on international television in 1967, my brother Bob said that Ronald Reagan was the toughest debater he ever faced and, obviously, he was right. [Laughter]

Robert Kennedy was a man of action but also of vision. From memory, he so often quoted Shaw's words that they were finally his own bywords. And so he dreamed things that never were and said, "Why not?" And I hope that when we think of him now, we will think as he did of all those who have no one else to care for their concerns. He gave his strength for those who were weak. He gave his voice for those who had no special interest to speak for them, and he always remembered those who were forgotten. He had an uncommon feeling for the common people who make America work. He had often walked the corridors of power in this White House and conferred with the mighty here, but he could walk with equal grace through migrant camps or talk with utter ease to workers on an assembly line.

There was at once an intensity and a gentleness in him that made him a unique spark of hope in a dark time. The violence that struck him down has threatened and touched so many others. The nation and the world have felt the pain so recently. Those of us who were with Robert Kennedy when he died in 1968 felt a special sense of relief this year, Mr. President, at your own recovery from the attack against you.

And today, all the Kennedys feel a special sense of pride in the brother, husband, father, and son who went before us. He was often misunderstood in life. But people everywhere know how much he meant, for they have missed him so much all the years since his loss.

To you, Mr. President, to the Congress, and to our fellow citizens, we are grateful for this gracious tribute today. Our family is grateful to Ethel, the light of his life, who stood with him on countless platforms around the nation and around the world, a friend who has sustained our spirits in dark passages and bright days.

And I speak here for many others who loved Robert Kennedy as well. How proud our remarkable mother is of what he did and of this recognition. And if they were here, that pride would be shared by my father, by Joe and Jack and Kathleen, who always knew that while Bobby was the smallest, he had the biggest heart.

Thirteen years ago at this hour, Robert Kennedy lay dying of his wounds. And accepting this medal in his memory, I would say again what I said when we took leave of him. He was a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

And my prayer would be the same. Those of us who loved and who took him to his rest that day continue to pray that what he was for us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:40 a.m. at the presentation ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. Prior to the ceremony, the President met in the Oval Office with Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy and her children.

The gold medal was authorized by the 95th Congress on November 1, 1978.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Presenting the Robert F. Kennedy Medal to Mrs. Ethel Kennedy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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