Good morning Austin:
One of my earliest memories is listening to the election returns in the Kennedy-Nixon race on my family’s car radio as we were driving home on Long Island, New York, on the night of Nov. 8, 1960.
I was six years old.
Three years later, my classmates and I at Brookside Elementary School were sent home from school on news that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas and that Lyndon Johnson of Texas was now our president.
Only a year later, Robert F. Kennedy, RFK, was elected senator from New York in the Johnson landslide.
Four years later, Robert Kennedy, while running for president, was assassinated in Los Angeles. He died on my 14th birthday, June 6, 1968. I stood on line with my parents to touch his casket, lying in state at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
For a number of years, from the late 1970s through the 1980s, I covered Sen. Ted Kennedy as a reporter for a Massachusetts newspaper, working in both Massachusetts and Washington,
And Saturday night I met Joe Kennedy III, Robert Kennedy’s grandson and a member of Congress from Massachusetts.
If there is going to be a second President Kennedy in my lifetime, he is the one.
He was the keynote speaker at the Texas Democratic Party’s Johnson-Jordan Dinner at the Hotel Van Zandt. It was a sell out of about 375 people at the cool hotel near Rainey Street in Austin, named for the beloved musician, Townes, and I guess it is his great-grandfather Isaac Van Zandt, who played an important role in the annexation of Texas into the Union and died of yellow fever while running for governor in 1847.
I spoke briefly with Kennedy before the dinner. He looks like a Kennedy, but with red hair, and so not so much like his grandfather, until you look at his eyes and then you see it.
Asked about the future of Texas Democrats, he replied, “The future of the Democratic Party is in Texas.”
This is a slight but important variation on what he might have been expected to say, which would have been something on the order of, “The future of the Democratic Party in Texas is bright.”
Instead, he said it is the national Democratic Party whose future is at stake in Texas. In his iteration, Texas goes from being gravy in some future locked-in national Democratic electoral majority, to the meat and potatoes of creating that durable majority.
On the night of Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was to have spoken to the Texas Democratic State Committee at the Municipal Auditorium in Austin.
According to his prepared remarks, he would have said:
The historic bonds which link Texas and the Democratic Party are no temporary union of convenience. They are deeply embedded in the history and purpose of this State and party. For the Democratic Party is not a collection of diverse interests brought together only to win elections. We are united instead by a common history and heritage–by a respect for the deeds of the past and a recognition of the needs of the future. Never satisfied with today, we have always staked our fortunes on tomorrow. That is the kind of State which Texas has always been–that is the kind of vision and vitality which Texans have always possessed–and that is the reason why Texas will always be basically Democratic.
In that speech, Kennedy recounted the promises he had made – and that he said his administration had kept – in his campaigning with Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Ralph Yarborough and House Speaker Sam Rayburn across Texas in 1960 – in Austin and Dallas and Grand Prairie and Fort Worth and San Antonio and Amarillo and Wichita Falls and Houston and Lubbock and El Paso.
Joe Kennedy, 36, is the son of Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest son of Robert Kennedy, and who also served 12 years in Congress from Massachusetts.
In speaking at Saturday night’s dinner, Joe Kennedy followed Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 44, the congressman from El Paso, who is the Democratic candidate seeking to replace Ted Cruz in the United States Senate. O’Rourke was introduced by Mike Floyd, 18, a preternaturally gifted politician who is an elected member of the Pearland ISD School Board.
(note: the Facebook Live of Floyd, O’Rourke and Kennedy below ends well before Kennedy’s speech ends and, regrettably, my phone conked out as well as I was videotaping it.)
Kennedy was introduced by Rep. Donna Howard of Austin, who Rep. Celia Israel, who emceed the dinner, described as a “bad ass.”
Rep. ah, Bad Ass? Thank you for what you do. Thank you for what you stand for. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for showing that even in Texas people are going to reach out and help one another and showing that health care is a right for everybody in this country and not a privilege.
Kennedy thanked Mayor Adler.
Mayor Adler, thank you for welcoming me back to Austin .It is pleasure always to be here. My staff always wonders whether I am cool enough to come here. The answer is always emphatically no, every single time. They made fun of me yet again on my way here.
Kennedy said, “I’m really here to introduce Beto.”
He’s my best friend in Congress. The rub in our friendship is that he’s also known as being the best-looking Kennedy in Washington.
Every single profile.
He told me the other day that everybody always thinks that we’re related because they say we look alike.
I said, “That’s nice.”
He said, `Not really.”
If there was ever a Texan who was needed in the United States Senate, it is Beto O’Rourke. He embodies what you saw on stage just a moment ago, what is best and brightest about this fine state and our party – warmth, independence, moxie, faith. He is dogged. He is decent. He is a breath of fresh air in a town that is all to stuck on the status quo. He is tireless, literally tireless ...
He recalled accompanying another tireless campaigner in Texas during the fiercely contested 2008 Obama-Clinton primary.
Your state, this state is near and dear to my heart. I will never forget barnstorming Texas with my Uncle Ted, campaigning for then Sen. Obama. We went all over the place and we finished up late one night in Laredo in a hall and at that point there were only a handful of supporters there to greet us, and my uncle walked into that room and he didn’t blink and without missing a beat, belted out every word of “Ay Jalisco No Te Rajes” in a booming Boston accent, and the crowd went absolutely nuts for a ranchera song, and a Massachusetts mariachi who tried to sing it.
Folks, the distance, the differences between our two states evaporated in that moment, a divide easily bridged by traditions, common cause and human touch.
Per NPR, Sen. Kennedy recalled that rally in Laredo in his posthumously published memoir.
I felt joyous and exuberant through the inevitable exhaustion of the Democratic primary campaign, as I had felt in Wyoming and West Virginia in 1960 for Jack, and in Indiana and California in 1968 for Bobby. “No one said we couldn’t have a little fun!” I shouted to a Latino crowd in San Antonio before belting out “Ay Jalisco No Te Rajes” in my version of Spanish. I had so much fun that I sang it again in Laredo. By mid-May, Obama had won the crucial North Carolina primary and had taken the lead in committed delegates. Some commentators were declaring the race already over. I certainly intended to keep on campaigning for him through the late spring and summer, but there was time to steal away for a few sails on Nantucket Sound.
What was he singing about?
Here are some of the lyrics:
This is how it is supposed to sound.
Returning to Joe Kennedy.
An Austin-Boston connection. Texas and Massachusetts. Two mighty American epicenters that are hopelessly divided by football and food, but yet are united by a profound sense of patriotism, by an outsized (role) in the history of our United States, and it is alive in this room tonight, and I cherish the opportunity to tell all of you that now, our nation’s heart is with Texas.
Kennedy, whose wife’s family lives in Houston and who had just visited there with O’Rourke, talked about the heroic response of Texans to Harvey.
Their actions, your actions, are a tonic for the raw wounds of our country, a country that is nervous for the fights that will come tomorrow, a country that is struggling to remember what holds us together, at a moment that threatens to tear us apart. Ladies and gentlemen, it is no secret that we gather in perilous times. White supremacists and neo-Nazis march proudly in the light of day. Brave immigrant children being told they will be sent to a place they have never known. Ninety Republican congressmen voting against disaster relief for Texas, including four from this very state.
Heroes in uniform who are seeing their service sacrificed and degraded because of who they are. Refugees, fleeing unspeakable violence and oppression, being denied safe haven on our shores. The health care of suffering families caught in a cruel political game. And a president of the United States who calls this greatness. An administration that counts to choose who is worthy of justice and who is not. Who counts and who doesn’t. Who is welcome and who will be turned away. Who pits American against American, as if governing the nation were some bad episode of reality television.
Week after week, week after week, we are forced to defend sacred ground on every front, and it can be easy I think, for many of us to see this past year through the lens of true chaos, some amateur executive with a thick ego and a thin skin, an inept administration in a state of confusion at best, corruption at worst.
But, if we leave it there, if that is the only story we tell, then we miss the real fight, because when you take the time to connect every devastating dot in the chaos, (it) reveals a strategy that is breathtaking in its calculation and in its precision. President Trump and let’s be clear, the countless Republican leaders whose silence gives him cover, have launched an all-out assault on the character of our country. They are carefully remaking a proud, confident, diverse, gutsy and gracious nation into something scared and small, to something petty and insecure, and human dignity is not something you are born with but something that you make with the size of your crowds, the strength of your bank account, the names of your friends … not to mention the gender of your spouse, the country of your birth, the God in your prayers, the color of your skin.
They are not just targeting the laws the protect us. They are targeting the whole idea that we are all worthy of protection. And folks, that is the greatest threat that we face, a rebuke of the highest American ideals, that is as old as our scriptures and as clear as our Constitution. The belief that we are all worthy, that we are all equal, that we all count in the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government. In the words of a trailblazing daughter of Texas whose name this dinner proudly bears, “equality for all, privilege for none.”
Democrats, this is our fight. This is the only fight. This is our story. This is our message. This is our electoral strategy. This is our moral responsibility. To rebuild a country defined by the decency it offers every proud man, woman or child who is blessed to call this nation home. Where strength isn’t measured by who you prey on, but who you protect. Where greatness isn’t just a show of muscle but a show of mercy. Where we understand a nation cannot be powerful when its people are powerless.
And that is the simple vision that links every single battle that Democrats have waged. From fair wages to fair elections, universal health care to scientific discovery, human rights abroad to public education here at home.
Kennedy talked about the integral importance for every human being to have work and be able to support their family and take care of their children.
As the speech drew to a close, he recalled Nov. 22.
The night that he passed way, President John F. Kennedy was set to be right here in Austin, In a speech that he never gave, he wrote the ambitious agenda of a young administration and the challenges that were set to come. Texas will lead the way because, “Texans have stood their ground on embattled frontiers before, and I know you will help us see this battle through.”
It was indeed a bold, brave son of Texas who would help a broken-hearted country achieve that vision. President Lyndon B. Johnson grabbed his arms around a reeling nation and firmly tugged it forward in a way that only a Texan could. The Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. Medicaid. Affirmative action. The infrastructure of the modern Democratic Party was built with Texan hands. And it is that legacy that we celebrate today as we look to Texas not just for playbook but for a gut check, a sturdy Southern anchor, truly American embodiment of size and strength and stamina.
Two weeks ago when Harvey barreled into your shores we had no doubt you would respond heroically. Somebody once told me that nobody can mess with Texas. But it was your grace that took our breath away. You held tightly to each other. You refused to let a neighbor fall. You literally linked arm in arm to form a human chain to pull strangers from the wreckage.
You reminded a fractured and fearful country of why we fight so hard to keep our promises, why we sacrifice so deeply for our American experiment because of our people, because they are worth it, because they deserve a government as good as they are.
We are imperfect. We are flawed and fragile. We can be selfish and cruel. But in the moments that matter most, we expand and we expend, we rescue, we protect, we survive. We give, we open, we help and we heal. We choose, you chose, to be heroes. And it take time and it takes persistence and it takes resistance. But no storm, no threat, no single person, no stubborn monster like prejudice and injustice, in the end, none, none of it can match the small, personal ways that Americans choose goodness every single day, 320 million times over. It is the measure of our country’s character. That’s who we are.
So Texas thank you for reminding the Democratic Party, and a divided nation, exactly what we need to be fighting for in the years ahead.
It is worth noting amid Joe Kennedy’s remarkable paean to Texas, and particularly to Lyndon Johnson, that RFK and LBJ were the bitterest, most personal of rivals. And that for all JFK’s optimism on this last day that Texas will always be basically Democratic, it was LBJ who predicted that by fulfilling JFK’s legacy he would cost his party the South, Texas included, for a generation.
Now, more than a half century since John Kennedy’s death, Robert Kennedy’s grandson was in Austin describing the nation’s debt to Texas and that particular Texan, and looking forward to the day when Texas Democrats will once again be instrumental in their party’s national ambitions.