Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s famous father was a political iconoclast who captured the imagination of voters with stirring assurances in his speeches like, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, he sends a tiny ripple of hope out into the world.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., seen commenting during the opening minutes of an interview with journalist Charlie Rose in January in Dallas, will be the speaker at next month’s University of Memphis law school graduation.
(Photo: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Next month, the younger Kennedy will bring a community-minded call-to-arms reminiscent of his father’s when he takes the stage as the official speaker for the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Class of 2013 graduation ceremony.
But there will be at least one difference.
Whereas his father, who was killed in 1968 running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is remembered for his political idealism, Kennedy Jr. is an environmental business leader, lawyer and advocate who says he’s not much inspired by the modern political landscape.
He thinks it’s too choked by a cult of personality and by too much money greasing the wheels for politics to be considered as a force for good.
Kennedy Jr. will tell those lawyers-to-be during the May 12 ceremony at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts that “more and more it’s falling to the lawyers” to work to make peoples’ lives better.
“It’s the obligation of lawyers to make sure that the marketplace and the government serve the public and not the powerful or corporations,” Kennedy said by phone from New York by way of previewing his remarks. “I’ll be talking about the idea that democracy and the environment are intertwined and that they’re intertwined with issues that affect our prosperity, our moral authority and our national security.
“We’re living in an era where we see democracy being threatened by large corporations. We need to get money out of politics. The amount of money flowing into our political system from corporations paralyzes the process. And we can’t have a strong environment without a robust democracy.”
Kennedy, of course, is a well-known environmental advocate. He was arrested earlier this year during a climate change rally along with other protestors who had latched themselves to the White House gate in a protest against the Keystone Pipeline.
Kennedy is a professor of environmental law at Pace University School of Law and serves as co-director of the school’s Environmental Litigation Clinic. Among his other accomplishments, he serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is president-at-large of the Waterkeeper Alliance and is a partner on the CleanTech investment team of Silicon Valley’s VantagePoint Capital Ventures among other things.
Local investment firm Duncan-Williams Inc sponsors this year’s University of Memphis law school graduation. The graduating class approached Kennedy about speaking at the event, and his history of public service and passion for environmental law resonated with the student body, according to the school.
The students in this year’s class also have demonstrated a commitment to using their abilities for public service, with several having garnered statewide service-related awards and founded nationally recognized nonprofits.
The law school’s interim dean, William Kratzke, said in a statement that Kennedy’s participation makes the ceremony a “tremendously exciting occasion.”
“We are hopeful that his visit and speech will inspire and motivate our students to achieve the many things we know them to be capable of after law school,” Kratzke said.
Kennedy is quick to draw on favorite quotes to illustrate his political perspective. He cites one from Abraham Lincoln: “I have the Confederacy before me and the bankers behind me, and for America I fear the bankers the most.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy said, insisted that U.S. democracy wasn’t vulnerable to defeat by foreign enemies but that it would be “subverted from within by malefactors of great wealth.” Kennedy, meanwhile, will tell the law school graduates that the country still has plenty of strong institutions – some of the most important being the courts and the bar.