The authentic is an elusive quality in public life today, like a shimmering mirage on a summer day that continually retreats into the distance until it disappears over the horizon.
I was reminded of this absence, by contrast, last evening. While surfing YouTube, I stumbled upon a clip of Robert Kennedy speaking to students at New York’s Columbia University when he was running for Senator. I had forgotten how unimpressive a figure he cut. Bobby had a bad haircut, his rumpled suit hung limply on his spare frame, and he seemed to protect himself against the crowd by hunching his shoulders. He nervously clenched a rolled-up paper in one hand. His speaking style, sometimes hesitating, never with an easy flow, revealed he was not really comfortable in this kind of crowd scene.
The unscreened questions from the students, while not hostile, challenged Kennedy on key issues of the campaign. As he answered each question, occasionally jabbing the air for emphasis, he won the students over. While watching, I soon understood why they responded. It was not on the basis of his policies or proposals, but due to the feeling with which he touched them. The students sensed something about Bobby Kennedy, something palpable, based on his plain words and on his prior record as Attorney General during the early battles for civil rights. Simply stated, Robert Kennedy meant it. Whether they agreed with him or thought he was a reckless liberal, the students realized after a short time that they were seeing a public figure who meant it.
When Kennedy left the auditorium, the students stood and applauded. They felt connected to the authentic.