News Hits has listened more than its fair share of speeches over the years, but we can think of few that compared with the one Robert F. Kennedy Jr. gave at Wayne State University last week.
Speaking without notes to an overflow crowd of more than 800 people, Kennedy effortlessly covered a vast amount of territory, touching on topics environmental, historical, political, theological and personal, weaving it all together in a way that was nothing short of spellbinding.
An attorney who specializes in bringing cases against polluters and the author of the best-selling book Crimes Against Nature, Kennedy spoke eloquently about the role wilderness has played in mankind's spiritual journey, and the role it has played in so many of the world's major religions, from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam.
But just as he talked about the Creator speaking to us through nature, Kennedy berated religious fundamentalists who think that theirs is the only true religion. "Fundamentalism is a kind of tribalism," he said.
Segueing from the religious to the political, he eviscerated the Bush administration, saying that in terms of environmental policy, the current White House is the worst in American history. In position after position, in agency after agency, lobbyists representing the "worst of the worst" have been put in government positions where they are responsible for regulating the industries they previously lobbied for.
One of the biggest applause lines of the night came when he laid part of the blame for this on a "negligent and indolent press that has simply let down American democracy."
Calling the White House press corps a "karaoke group for Karl Rove," Kennedy said the national media — controlled by a handful of corporations and anything but liberal — share responsibility for the war in Iraq because they failed to expose the lies used to justify our invasion.
"We are," he said, "the best-entertained, least-informed people on Earth."
These disparate themes were tied together by the overarching issue of corporate control of government, which Kennedy described as the definition of fascism.
Contrasting America's current standing in the world to the way it was just before the current administration took office, Kennedy talked about touring Europe with his father as a boy. (His uncle, John F. Kennedy, had already been assassinated by that point. A few years later, his father, in the midst of a presidential campaign, would also be gunned down.) What he saw on that trip were people who revered America because of what it stood for. And after 9/11, the "reservoir of good will" that had been built since this country's founding reached the point where it was overflowing.
"And in just seven years," he said, the Bush administration's "monumental incompetence and arrogance" has "drained that reservoir dry."
It is this turnaround, he said, that has been the "bitterest pill" for him to swallow. Talking about this country's use of torture to pry information from captured enemy combatants, and how such actions diminish us in the eyes of the world, Kennedy quoted the line: "America is a great country because it is a good country, and if we ever stop being good, then we stop being great."
As we sat there listening to this, News Hits found itself wishing that this Kennedy were following in the footsteps of his father and uncle by pursuing the presidency. We're betting it was a thought that passed through the mind of everyone who heard his speech. During a question-and-answer session, someone did ask if he thought about running for office. Kennedy replied that he's supporting Hillary Clinton, and that, if she wins, it's possible he'll seek the U.S. Senate seat from New York — a seat once held by his father — that will need to be filled.
Afterward, in a talk with reporters, News Hits asked Kennedy if he ever worries that maybe we're reached a tipping point in this country, that the corporate grip on power is too tight to be pried loose, and that the public has become too dumbed-down to see through the fog of propaganda we're subjected to?
The look he gave in response made us think that he's never been plagued by that sort of pessimism. But he was too polite to chastise. All he did was say, "You have to keep trying."
Kennedy's appearance inaugurated Wayne State University's privately funded Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society. Following the speech, WSU President Irvin Reid told Kennedy, "You've set a very high mark for all who follow you."
No one who heard the speech could disagree.News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]