By David M. SHRIBMAN
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The primary victory in California. The admonition to go to Chicago “and let’s win there.” The procession into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The candidate splayed on the ground, his right arm extended. The final grim news from the Good Samaritan Hospital. The brother’s eulogy for a man “who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” And then the funeral train, the most poignant since Lincoln’s, its route lined with people at attention, saluting, holding their hands over their hearts.
It seems like only yesterday. It was 50 years ago, Robert Francis Kennedy, dead at 42.
We do not know today whether Kennedy would have won the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination; nor whether he would have defeated Richard M. Nixon for the White House; nor whether he would have ended the war in Vietnam; nor whether he would have healed a broken country; nor whether his vision of justice for blacks and Hispanics and of opportunity for the poor would have been redeemed; nor whether, even, he could have gone to China and Soviet Russia, the way Nixon did, or averted the next recession, which Nixon did not.
We know only that a half-century ago – just two months after the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which Kennedy marked with one of the great speeches in American history – his death launched a thousand questions even as it ended a million hopes.
Not everyone was for Robert F. Kennedy for president. The early supporters of Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who first challenged Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, surely were not, nor were millions of Republicans worried about a new Kennedy ascendancy or the profligacy of his programs. And there is no reason, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts put it in perhaps the greatest eulogy in American history, for the New York senator to be “idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life.”
But there is no denying that this anniversary is a poignant one. Kennedy spoke for American values of inclusion and possibility. He pulled the dispossessed (the poor) and discouraged (the young) into politics at a time when they thought American promise was for other people. He created a coalition unlike any created in modern times – people who otherwise were leery, or contemptuous, of each other, and cynical about the American system.
“He was able to win support from people who did not have sympathy for anti-war protesters or the civil rights movement,” Jeff Greenfield, the television commentator who was a Kennedy speechwriter in 1968, said in an interview. “Some of the people who supported him would just as soon have run protesters over with a truck, but they thought he could get things done.”
Robert Kennedy, like the country he sought to lead, was immensely complex. He first surfaced as an aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who created the midcentury red scare, providing the seed for many of his rivals’ enduring disdain, even contempt. Later, he opposed the selection of Lyndon B. Johnson as his brother’s vice president in 1960, setting the stage for perhaps the greatest political blood rivalry of the postwar period. As attorney general, he overcame reservations and became an ardent integrationist, the scourge of Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama and his segregationist allies scattered around the Old Confederacy in a region that still was the Solid Democratic South.
Then came his brother’s assassination and the descent into misery, then malaise, then a sense of mission like almost no other in the modern period. Kennedy believed Johnson was in too deep in Vietnam, too slow on civil rights, too unmoored from the truth, too preoccupied with his legacy, too egotistical to heed the advice of experts, too insecure to invite anyone but sycophants into his circle.
“The Bobby Kennedy moment came because of a deep policy disagreement,” said the Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “But he is all about the metamorphosis from McCarthy aide in the 1950s to spokesman for human rights in the late 1960s.”
That movement matched the American passage, and Kennedy passed into an entirely new phase in his life, and in American politics.
“His interests and the way he connected with people cut across partisan lines,” said Peter Edelman, the Kennedy aide who accompanied the senator to his meeting with labor leader Cesar Chavez. “In many cases it was across racial lines. He learned from people who didn’t share his views.”
Though he stoked partisan, and intraparty, resentments, that connection reached across yawning fissures in American politics. Craig Shirley, author of four Reagan biographies, noted that the California governor had a particular, though peculiar, affinity for Robert Kennedy, and as president presented a special medal to Ethel Kennedy. “He roused the comfortable,” Reagan said in the Rose Garden. “He exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen, and renewed and enriched the American conscience.”
This week, as his life and death were recalled in newspapers and on Netflix, the remarkable thing is the resilience of the Kennedy message and the strength of the RFK bond.
But would Kennedy have prevailed – in the nomination fight against McCarthy (backed by the true believers of the anti-war movement) and Hubert Humphrey (with labor and Southern support), and in a general election campaign against Nixon (“tanned, rested and ready”)?
“Nixon would have had a nervous breakdown about running against a second Kennedy in eight years,” said the syndicated columnist Mark Shields, who was a campaign organizer for Kennedy in 1968. “It was potentially the most dramatic and revolutionary presidency of the 20th century.” It may also be the greatest unanswered question in American politics.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittaburgh Post-Gazette.