Pelosi at Ship Launch: Robert F. Kennedy Would Call for Israel Justice, Not Revenge

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Sen. Robert F. Kennedy died in June 1968 on the cusp of winning the Democratic Party’s nomination for president — assassinated by Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan.

Twenty miles from the Otay Mesa prison where Jordanian Sirhan is serving a life sentence, a 742-feet vessel bearing his victim’s name was christened and launched Saturday.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, featured at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard event, was asked afterward what the second slain Kennedy would have thought about the latest Mideast war — involving Israel and Hamas.

“He was about bringing people together,” said the former House speaker, “and being respectful.”

She said Hamas’ atrocities can’t be ignored, but Kennedy would say: “We need to have justice. We don’t need to have revenge.”

With six of the nine living Kennedy children in attendance, including presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy Jr., some 400 people heard stories of RFK’s legacy as a champion of civil rights.

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The fueling ship USNS Robert F. Kennedy is the fourth in a class of oilers that began with the John Lewis and Harvey Milk. (Under construction are the future U.S. Navy ships Earl Warren, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth.)

Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus ordered fleet oilers named for civil rights giants.

With a full load displacement of 49,850 tons, they can carry 157,000 barrels of oil and sail at up to 20 knots. The ships boast double hulls to protect against oil spills and strengthened cargo and ballast tanks, and will be equipped with a basic self-defense capability.

The ship’s captain, David K. Murrin, scaled a three-story platform for the best view of the 9 a.m. launch. He said the RFK will be berthed nearby for outfitting, and get its crew in about five months before months of sea trials.

As ship sponsor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend repeatedly smashed a red-white-and-blue champagne bottle against a hull extension minutes before high tide on San Diego Bay. Kennedy’s oldest child, 72 and born on the Fourth of July, later recalled her family’s Navy pedigree.

During World War I, her grandfather Joseph Kennedy Sr. was an assistant general manager of a Boston area shipyard. Her uncle Joe Jr. was a U.S. Navy bomber pilot killed over the English Channel in World War II.

And her uncle John, the 35th president, gained fame for his PT 109 heroism and “helped avoid a nuclear holocaust,” Townsend said, with his naval blockade of missile-armed Cuba in 1962.

Robert Francis Kennedy also served in the Navy, but his stint as his brother’s attorney general in the early 1960s sealed his legend in civil rights.

“He was the only person in the White House who pushed President Kennedy to call civil rights a moral issue,” Townsend told an audience that included Reps. Darrell Issa and Sara Jacobs — and several former House members.

“The Navy relies on the fuel, food and medicine that these fueling ships bring to the sailors and ships so that they can fulfill their mission,” she said. “And our nation relies on the fuel that civil rights leaders provide by their sacrifice, devotion and vision — so that our nation can fulfill our mission to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Pelosi said the new ship’s name was synonymous with hope.

“With his commanding rhetoric, he showed his vision for a better future,” she said, recalling how he called for national reconciliation during an era that saw Martin Luther King Jr. shot dead by a white racist.

“The natural condition of life is not degradation but dignity,” Pelosi quoted Kennedy as saying. “Bobby talked about love and compassion and talked about faith and gave us hope.”

She drew laughs when citing her late colleague John Lewis’ quip: “We may all come over to America on a different ship, but now we’re in the same boat.”

Pelosi noted that Lewis and Cesar Chavez campaigned for Kennedy in 1968 — and now “all of them have ships.” (Dolores Huerta, a Chavez ally for farmworkers rights, was in the NASSCO audience Saturday.)

“He never appealed to our darker side,” she added. “And he was loved across America because he always spoke to our better angels.”

Townsend, a former Maryland lieutenant governor who knew Pelosi’s famed family in that state, quoted her father’s “Day of Affirmation Address”: “Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. …. Those ripples can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Pelosi echoed those words, hailing “this mighty ship, sailing the seas, leaving behind the Robert F. Kennedy ripple of hope.”

Said Rear Adm. Brendan McLane, special assistant to the commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet: “At sea, the USNS Robert F. Kennedy will be called upon to sustain a different type of hope and unity. She will be on the high seas, defending America’s interests around the globe, going into harm’s way to sustain our warships and sailors.

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“We were all reminded of the value of a deployed naval force just three weeks ago, after the attacks by Hamas on Israel,” McLane added. “At a moment’s notice, our Navy was there, on station in the eastern Mediterranean, living true to the axiom that when things go horribly wrong in the world, the national command authority’s first question is: `Where are our strike groups?’”

A question asked Saturday was: Where did Robert F. Kennedy Jr. go?

As the ship slid into the bay, horns blaring, the independent White House candidate sat at the end of a line of Bobby Kennedy children. (Besides Townsend, the others were brothers Max and Christopher and sisters Kerry and Rory — the youngest child of Ethel Kennedy born after her dad died).

But when Townsend spoke, RFK Jr. and his third wife, Cheryl Hines, were no longer in their front-row seats.