Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 29, 1964, Vol. X, No. 2
A Vote for Bobby K. — Possibility of a Hero
By Norman Mailer
When there first began to be talk, back last winter, of Bobby Kennedy going in against Kenneth Keating, I had the reaction of a prize fight manager who has seen better days: Put down no bets, they’re a couple of bums. Keating never did a thing to me. He had a face like the plastic dough children play with. Smells like a bottle of moistened saccharine, sticks to the fingers, fails to hold its shape. I disliked the rhetoric with which he strutted into discussions of Cuba; the righteousness was enough to make you throw up. For righteous politicians, like bullies, have their greatest test of character when they’ve got you on the ground — can they keep from kicking you in the ear? At his best, Keating seemed a passable if unctuous assistant to a hard worker like Javits — at his worst he was an errand boy for Rockefeller plus every special interest there to be discovered. So Keating lit the kind of fire in my political heart which a turkey gobbler would light on the table if you developed the suspicion he was still alive. If one had to vote for Keating, there was no vote. The choice was left with Bobby. Bobby! — whom everybody I know called Raul Castro.
Bobby! — the Irish equivalent of Roy Cohn on the good old McCarthy team; Bobby! — with the face of a Widmark gunsel, that prep-school arrogance which makes good manual laborers think of smashing a fist through a wall; Bobby! who wrote books called “The Enemy Within,” about Come-You-Nism and crooked unions, Bobby who wrote in a style so bad that (to repeat from something just written) he had a dead stick’s prose; Bobby who played the game down the center, so had no sense at all of how it felt to be outside, try to get in. Who could vote for Bobby?
But we’ve had a couple of months of the campaign, and a liberal hogshead of much ado about almost no difference. Since each of the candidates was considerably farther to the right even a few years ago, their protestations of liberalism now, about which Hentoff, I.F. Stone, and Arthur Schlesinger have given us copious documentation back and forth, are not finally convincing, or even important to the vote. If Keating and Kennedy were both cons up before a parole board and were debating who had prayed his way back closer to Jesus, and each was buttressed in his arguments by impossible-to-follow allegations, and by disputes over microscopic facts delivered by lawyers altogether skillful at working the grit from a detail, one would have a natural suspicion that when a con claims he is close to Jesus it is to get parole — which con is actually the closest would have little to do with allegations, facts, or details. Or, in this case, issues. It would take a constitutional lawyer to decide on the issues whether Keating or Kennedy is now more liberal. When it comes to being more liberal in this hour, in this election, you could not get a short curled hair between them. They’re so liberal you don’t have to vote, not for liberalism — you got a liberal either way. Of course, if the country turns right, you got a conservative either way. Have you? Well, you know you have with Ken Keating. He doesn’t have a face like plastic dough for nothing. But we are with Bobby. Here the difference begins to appear. I don’t know. I wouldn’t pretend to say Bobby Kennedy is not capable of marching at the front of a right-wing movement. But the Right is not likely to suffer from a lack of leaders. Goldwater may be no more than the cork out of the bottle. The appeal of the Right, since it is emotional, will attract demagogues. I think Bobby Kennedy may be the only liberal about, early or late, who could be a popular general in a defense against the future powers of the Right Wing. For there’s no one else around. The Democratic Party is bankrupt, bankrupt of charisma; the Right Wing has just begun. Anyone who was at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City must confess — if they can afford to — that the mood was equal to a yellow jaundice ward on the banks of a swamp.
By this logic, it comes to this: we are in the absence of real and immediate political issues. So we must vote for one candidate because he is a neutron, or must vote for the other because he is an active principle who will grow and change and become — odds are — a powerful leader of the Left or the Right. Posed that way, i take the second alternative. I vote for the active principle. To vote for a man who is neuter is to vote for the plague. I would rather vote for a man on the assumption he is a hero and have him turn into a monster than vote for a man who can never be a hero. For follow it through: a hero, even a failed-hero, or a hero-as-monster, is more likely to create other heroes, by his example or by opposition to him, than a man who gains power and has never been anything at all. A forceful political structure with a great number of particular heroes is a way to describe the Mafia. The vote goes then to Bobby Kennedy. He has finally a face.
Say one thing more. Few vote by logic alone. Sentiment enters. I have affection for Bobby Kennedy. I think something came into him with the death of his brother. I think Bobby Kennedy has come a pilgrim’s distance from that punk who used to play Junior D.A. for Joe McCarthy and grabbed headlines by riding Jimmy Hoffa’s back. Something compassionate, something witty, has come into the face. Something of sinew. So I think, I could be wrong, but I’d rather go this way and be wrong, than vote the other way trying to stop a possibility with a non-entity. When the issues at stake are small, it is natural to vote for the man who has the more arresting personality, as once before, when issue were small, America elected Jack Kennedy. Of course, if you remember, Jack Kennedy was not then enormously popular in New York. He had a dubious liberal record and seemed unpredictable. New York voted for him but did not like him. In New York we prefer to vote to stop things. So New Yorkers know nonentity. they know durance sufficiently vile to have endured for 12 years a nonentity for Mayor and a nonentity, these last six years, for Senator. My vote goes therefore to establishing a new face in the Senate. Is that not half the welfare of a liberal society — to have something new to discuss at the dinner table? Consider: six more years of Ken Keating with Brussels sprouts or six with Bobby K. and some red snapper.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]