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November 10, 1966, Vol. XII, No. 4
The Frenetic Business of Being Bobby Kennedy
By Suzanne Kiplinger
Senator Robert F. Kennedy came to Brooklyn Heights last Sunday, leaving in his wake several hundred frenetic, excited Bobby-Watchers, and one small girl (my own) running in 50-foot concentric circles, struck dumb at having had a brief conversation with him.
The occasion was a walking tour of the Promenade with Congressman Hugh Carey; for those who do not know it, the Promenade is a wide walkway, several blocks in length, high above and looking out over the New York Harbor and Brooklyn Bridge. On Saturdays and Sundays, it is a place to take the babies, read the newspapers and sun yourself while watching the ships go in and out. My child and I happened to be at the Bridge end when the Senator arrived to begin the walk. People apparently expected him at the other end, so the crowd was thin at first. What follows is a purely persona reaction to the “Bobby Phenomenon” — Kennedy and the Crowd, the Crowd and Kennedy.
It was a vivid and unnerving experience to see what the Senator evokes from the crowd, and what the crowd, or mob — in which I must reluctantly include myself — does to the Senator. He arrived tired — clearly the long campaign has been exhausting, and the trips to help Democratic candidates all over the country has not helped. I have traveled a great deal by air myself, and on the basis of some experience, the Senator looks like nothing so much as an “overflown” pilot. — one who has been in and out of different time zones and climates too much, and has flown the maximum hours on the minimum amount of sleep. The air in any plane is always too dry, and pilots develop a briney, dry look of the eyes and skin. That was the look Kennedy had a couple of days before November 8. I used to think that John Lindsay was overestimated on one score by his followers: as possible competition for Kennedy. Lindsay is made of flesh and blood, and when fatigued, shows it clearly. I also thought that the Kennedy wealth undoubtedly kept the Senator insulated from the slings and arrows of life far more than the non-insulated John Lindsay. No one knows better. It is also true that the Senator dislikes the milling of the crowd about him, the push and press. His walk started with fatigue, a set smile, an almost unseeing brilliant blue-eyed gaze, and a crowd lunging for him. To my horror, I found myself among the lungers. Ordinarily the politician doesn’t exist for whom I do this; living around the corner from the St. George Hotel, a favorite meeting place for old pols and national figures, I thought I was immune. In the past month, we have had President Johnson, Frank O’Connor, and Governor Rockefeller. We have been swamped by Secret Service men and police, deafened by sound trucks blasting their way through this residential neighborhood, and had bellowing loudspeakers set up outside the hotel to deliver Governor Rockefeller’s speech inside at peak volume until 9.30 at night. I turned out for none of these worthies, although I often wished for a laser beam to direct at the assorted sound trucks. Now I found myself not only turning out for Bobby Kennedy, but rushing in to shake hands with that unseeing gaze, that fixed smile. The shifting, ragged, milling crowd surged around him, growing from a few at the start to hundreds at the end. The cries of “Where is he?” “There!” “Where, where, I can’t see him?” followed the Senator all along the walk. Brooklyn Heights is a fairly stable community, but the hysteria of the Bobby-Thing was evident even here. I feel it in trying to write about him — the jagged, broken sense of it, the contact made and broken, the urgent desire of so many to make some contact, however fleeting — the abortive quality of it all while at its center was a man almost walking in his sleep, drained not just by the hours, the pace, but the pull on his personality, the drag at his being — but still walking, smiling, through what he conceives to be his duty. And this is an off-year; how does any politician survive a Presidential year, when one as young and fit as this is weary? Bobby is running, and running hard — running harder than anyone had any idea, I think. There was the shriek of the kids, the squeal of a little old lady who kept repeating shrilly “I wanted to kiss him; he’s a Kennedy — but I didn’t have the nerve.” Shuddery as this thought is, considered in connection with a man with as much reserve as RFK — who, after all, can blame her? Underneath, I think we all believe at least a little in the King’s Evil — the touch, the blessing, the crowd waiting for Gandhi’s shadow to fall on them. We profess to hate the cult of personality in this country, and we get so ridiculously rational that we depersonalize everything from welfare to politics — safe in the mob lunging at Bobby Kennedy, we find all sorts of reasons for the intuitive response to someone who is, oh definitely, a personage. Beyond all the careful intellection we find to like or dislike this man, it’s very simple — it’s “a little touch of Harry in the night” that Bobby brings on the eve of Crispin Crispian’s Day. We are a nation which is full of paradox; at a time of the anti-hero, we want heroes, but we want them secretly — we hate being confronted with the stuff of Greek myths on foot, while at the same time we long for it. We have a President who lacks charisma to a phenomenal extent, and we chastise him for it. For all our many rational reasons for disapproving Lyndon Johnson, face it — the Kennedys are the toughest act in the world to follow. So we lunged and pushed, and the five-by-five pols surrounding Kennedy pushed back and yelled hoarsely at us. Kennedy smiled and stood it all, and the people felt a presence and a personality and a promise of a return to personality — which ought to be Kennedy’s main plank in whatever platform — the contact was both more and less than what they expected. And they reached for him to increase what contact is now available. Senator Kennedy is aging fast under this treatment; where is the man with the iron fist who ran his brother’s nomination and election with such phenomenal skill? Where is the hard-shelled lawyer of the rackets hearings? He’s not much older…like any good pol, he picked up as he went along, but clearly he doesn’t like the mob, he doesn’t like to press the flesh at such close quarters as does Lyndon Johnson — who would? It would be like one gigantic day in Macy’s, going on forever and ever, like hell itself.
Something else is overlooked, and that is that the Senator takes after “Honey Fitz,” his grandfather, and is not physically large man…Robert Kennedy, at about 5′ 7″, is not that easy to see — the crowds jump and push to get in close to see him…It’s an endurance test, and when you can’t look over the heads of your screaming, adoring followers, it must be claustrophobic in the extreme…
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]