PHOTO CAPTION: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks on the campus of the University of Texas Pan-American, Nov. 14, 2007.
RFK AT UTPA
Down here in Texas, the phrase “talking turkey” is often thrown into our conversations, and the natives just seem to instinctively know what we’re talking about. If you don’t speak Texan, however, a translation may be required.
Broadly defined, someone “talks turkey” when they speak frankly, openly, truthfully. And that’s just what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did during his Texas trip. His last scheduled speech before the Thanksgiving holiday brought him to the Rio Grande Valley as the keynote speaker for International Week on the UTPA campus, whose theme this year is “Earth Matters.”
RFK Jr. spoke to a packed auditorium at the University of Texas-Pan American Wednesday night as part of their Distinguished Speakers Series. (Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the featured speaker on campus last month.)
Now when I say the place was packed, I do mean jam-packed. Doors opened at 7 p.m. to UTPA students and faculty, but by the time the general public was admitted at 7:20 p.m., there were hardly any available seats remaining. Before his speech even began at 7:30, the doors of the Fine Arts Auditorium had to be locked and a couple hundred more people were turned away. (Luckily, these dejected souls were at least able to watch his speech in the nearby student union over closed circuit television.)
Myself and a small group of volunteers from the RFKin2008.com website made the 6-hour drive to Edinburg for the event. Of course, we brought with us a few new converts who were about to witness their very first RFK Jr. speech. I don’t think they were quite prepared for his intensity onstage and rapid-fire delivery; they hung on his every word, really just trying to keep pace with him.
Barely stopping to take a breath, Kennedy ran the gamut from global warming to religion, from corporate corruption of our government to why we must impeach President Bush. He often surprised the audience by quoting Republican presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, declaring that today’s NeoCons have dishonored everything these great American leaders stood for. “They’ve torn the conserve out of conservatism,” he said.
RFK always supports his positions with a mind-boggling array of memorized facts and figures, and somehow manages to tie it all together into a message of bipartisan cooperation and hope by the end of the speech. While much of what he has to say is the sobering truth, it’s not all doom and gloom. One never leaves one of his talks feeling powerless; quite the opposite, actually. I might liken it to the kind of spiritual “charge” felt by the congregation after a particularly rousing Sunday morning revival.
“NATURE ULTIMATELY CONNECTS US TO GOD”
At times looking and sounding more like an evangelist than an environmentalist, Kennedy characterized protecting our natural environment as a service to God and thus, ourselves. “The reason we protect these natural things,” said Kennedy, “is for our own sakes. Nature is part of our infrastructure. It enriches us aesthetically and spiritually.
“We will not fulfill our destiny in the eyes of our Creator if we let these things be destroyed. Nature ultimately connects us to God; it is the way God talks to us most forcefully. We know God through His creation, and when we destroy these things, it has to be a sin. God wants us to use His bounty for ourselves and for others, but we can’t use it up. We can’t treat the planet as if it were a corporation in liquidation.”
Although his speech was seamless and well-rehearsed as always, Kennedy was at his best when he digressed from the usual script and allowed himself to be a bit spontaneous. At one point, he started telling the audience about his recent six-week court battle against DuPont who “wantonly, willfully, and recklessly” poisoned the residents of a small West Virigina town with pollution from a nearby zinc-smelting plant. The jury agreed, awarding nearly $400 million in damages to the plaintiffs. (Not surprisingly, DuPont plans to appeal.)
Kennedy said that DuPont corporation repeatedly misled the public with many “little lies” intended to save the company money on testings and cleanups. “They were being cagey. They were being dodgy. They were being coy. They were being clever,” he explained. “That is who DuPont is. They have lost touch with their moral bearings.”
DuPont, the nation’s third largest chemical company, was found negligent in creating a 112-acre waste site, putting area residents at a higher-than-normal risk of diseases including cancer, cognitive problems, cardiac disease, even lead poisoning – and that’s just the short list.
Talking at length about these low-income families who suffered the toxic health effects inflicted by DuPont for decades, Kennedy’s voice began to crack with genuine emotion. “These were people who could not believe that other human beings were able to treat them this way, but this was a company that is willing to treat all of these people as if they were commodities,” he said. “They looked over the green landscape of West Virginia and they saw a commodity. They saw cash.”
“WE ARE LIVING IN A SCIENCE-FICTION NIGHTMARE”
“This is the worst environmental White House that we have had in history,” Kennedy said bluntly. He pointed out numerous cases in which lobbyists and other industry representatives were given key positions in federal environmental programs and used their authority to help industries subvert the law. Their actions have harmed the public, especially the poor, but it’s the people who end up paying for their misdeeds, he said.
Kennedy listed numerous statistics, including how four out of five toxic waste sites are near poor minority communities and how more than 600,000 children born every year were exposed to dangerous mercury levels in their mothers’ wombs for the simple reason that most freshwater fish is now unsafe to eat. “This is true all over the country because of industrial waste released into our waterways,” Kennedy said.
High levels of mercury have been linked to numerous birth defects, including autism and mental retardation. He pointed out that scientists have proven high mercury levels in women contribute greatly to a drop in children’s IQ, as much as 10 points or more, he said.
“We’re living today in a science fiction nightmare … because somebody gave money to a politician.” Kennedy would return to that theme more than once in his speech.
And while he said he loathed partisanship and said the worst thing that could happen to environmentalism would be for it to become the province of one political party, Kennedy fired a few more zingers at the Republicans. The one that drew the most laughter was in reference to a study done by the University of Maryland after the 2004 presidential election showing how misinformation affected the way people voted.
“Eighty percent of Republicans are just Democrats who don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
THE ONE QUESTION EVERYBODY WANTED TO ASK
At the conclusion of his hour-long speech, Kennedy opened the floor to questions.
He was quizzed about where he stood on the issue of building a border fence to curb illegal immigration, a very hot issue in the Rio Grande Valley. RFK Jr. told the crowd (90% or more of whom were Hispanic) that “this whole crisis was brought on by the breakdown of the labor unions in America. The key to solving this problem is the revival of labor unions. I don’t think building a border wall is the answer. If you build a wall 40 feet tall, somebody will build a 41-foot ladder.”
Kennedy was also asked if he supports the legalization of hemp (he does) and one brave soul even dared to ask him his thoughts on Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (our U.S. representative from the 14th District in South Texas). “You know, I really like a lot of what he has to say,” RFK Jr. replied, “and I respect his stance on issues like the war, but…” his voice trailed off, his face broke into a grin…”he says a lot of really crazy stuff, too.”
Which led us to the one question that was on everybody’s mind. The question we drove 6 hours just to ask. The proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the living room. But before any of the RFKin2008.com volunteers could get to the microphone, some of the locals beat us to the punch:
Kennedy was asked if he plans to run for public office anytime soon. He gave a vague, anecdotal answer, telling the assembled crowd how he had thought of running back in 2000, but then dropped the idea upon learning his wife was pregnant. “Under the circumstances, I think she wanted me around the house a little more,” he quipped.
This got a laugh, but it didn’t answer the question. When the microphone was passed to the next person in line, that man followed up with a more specifically-worded query for RFK Jr.: Sir, will you run for President?
“If an office opened up where I felt I could do some good, yes, I’d be interested in running.”
An audible gasp could be heard throughout the house as people inched up to the edges of their seats. The whisper went `round: Did he just say what it sounds like he said?
Breaking the tension with a dash of humor, Kennedy chuckled, “In New York, I mean…”
Photos and text copyright by RFKin2008.com. All rights reserved.
Video excerpt below from the UTPA Today Show (in 3 parts, available on YouTube)