The Populist President Who Might Have Been
NINETEEN SIXTY-EIGHT was the Year of the Locust. Two of the noblest citizens of the 20th century — Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King — were murdered eight weeks apart. Today, as we wonder why we have no heroic leaders to inspire us, we still pay the price of this loss.
In 1968 the Vietnam War continued to escalate, and 12,000 body bags came home. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush a revolt of workers who wanted more freedom. Two future lawbreakers — Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew — were elected president and vice-president on a platform that promised law and order. Nixon and George Wallace together received 57 per cent of the popular vote, heralding a new majority against justice. The New Left, of such great promise, went over the edge, into violence, nihilism, and apocalyptic buffoonery. The Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society started making bombs and vandalizing libraries. Jerry Rubin started calling Sirhan Sirhan a freedom fighter.
My memoir of Robert Kennedy was written against the drumbeat of these unhappy events. I can still recall composing the last despairing paragraphs on Christmas Eve of 1968, as I listened to Joan Baez and Aretha Franklin. Twenty years ago, realizing that my generation had been cheated of its full cycle of innocence and optimism, I wrote:
“Now I realize what makes our generation unique, what defines us apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961 and those who came after the murderous spring of 1968. We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent 20s, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt by the time we reached 30 that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could provide, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.”
It is now 20 years since Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and I feel these words are still true-perhaps more true than ever before. Robert Kennedy’s assassination is a wound that hurts more, not less, as time passes. It was an amputation.
In the 20 intervening years since Robert Kennedy’s rendezvous with Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel kitchen pantry, we have learned more about Robert Kennedy, not all of it flattering. We know more about Marilyn Monroe, the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, the recruitment of mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro.
We have also been witness to a series of extraordinary events, which flowed from the sea-change election of Richard Nixon in 1968 instead of Robert Kennedy, who I still believe would have been elected president that year had he not been killed. We have lived through the killing of students at Kent State University and Jackson State University in May 1970; the murder of Salvador Allende in Chile; the nolo contendere plea and resignation of Spiro Agnew; Watergate and Nixon’s resignation on the eve of impeachment; an era of selfishness and narcissism baptized as the “Me Decade” by Tom Wolfe; and the epidemic of greed without guilt that led to the insider trading scandals and the Wall Street crash. The symbolic personalities of our time have become Ivan Boesky, Colonel Oliver North, and Reverend Jim Bakker. Once they were Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and the Beatles.
So even though I understand more about Robert Kennedy’s errors and imperfections today, I cherish him more, because we can now measure him more realistically against the horizon of history, against so many leaders of lesser quality who came after him.
When Robert Kennedy died, Tom Hayden, a romantic radical, and Mayor Richard Daley, a city machine boss, wept. Two months later, Hayden and Daley would lead opposing armies of the night into combat against each other outside the 1968 Democratic convention which would have nominated Robert Kennedy. Only a Robert Kennedy could have touched two such fiercely opposite men so deeply during the Year of the Locust.
“When politics goes well,” wrote Harvard professor Michael Sandel, “we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”
Robert Kennedy helped us, as a nation, to briefly know a good in common.
THE CAUSES that Robert Kennedy stood for have awaited a leader of his depth and reach since he died. There has been no white political leader to take his place as a passionate tribune for minority empowerment, for the rights of Indians and Chicanos, for human rights in Latin America, for the dismantling of apartheid, for limitation of nuclear weapons, for a national commitment to abolish hunger, to rebuild the urban slums, to control handguns, and to reduce the violence of civilization.
The murder of Robert Kennedy left a void. No one came after him who could speak simultaneously for the unemployed black teenager and the white worker trapped in a dead-end job and feeling misunderstood. Robert Kennedy had the right equilibrium between race and class within liberalism.
One day, during the Indiana primary of 1968, I rode in a car behind Robert Kennedy through the racially divided and tense steel town of Gary, Indiana. Richard Hatcher, the black mayor, was balanced on one side of Kennedy, and Tony Zale, the Slavic warrior who came out of Gary’s blast furnaces to twice win the middleweight boxing championship, was braced on the other side of the candidate. The open car rode through the white side of Gary, and the black side, and Kennedy said precisely the same thing to both races: jobs were better than welfare, we had to be tough on crime, riots were no solution to problems, America should negotiate a peace in Vietnam, every citizen had an equal right to dignity. The reaction was equally enthusiastic in each side of the city. But ever since 1968, no national candidate has been able to replicate that pilgrimage of reconciliation. Since 1968, Wallace, Agnew, and Reagan have worked one side of town, and Reverend Jesse Jackson the other.
The values Kennedy preached and practiced were the antithesis of the values enshrined by fashion during the 1970s and 1980s. His message was sacrifice, change, community, compassion, and the rejection of material comfort as the meaning of life. Kennedy told blacks that with rights come responsibilities for discipline, education, and self-help. He told college students that it was unfair to have a draft deferment just because their parents were affluent enough to send them to college. He told corporation executives they had a moral obligation to help the poor and powerless. He told people things they didn’t want to hear.
Part of Kennedy’s greatness as a leader was that he did not capitulate to the traumatic craziness of his times. The assassination of his brother could have been reason for him to give in to nihilism, or cynicism, or paranoia. Instead, Robert Kennedy, like Martin Luther King and John Lennon, discovered through inner struggle the frontier of the possible during the 1960s.
John Lennon’s frontier of the possible can be imagined by listening to the lyrics of songs such as “All You Need Is Love,” “Working Class Hero,” and “Revolution.” Martin Luther King defined his frontier of the possible by keeping faith with integration and nonviolence, while simultaneously evolving from a civil rights leader to antiwar prophet, to organizer of the Poor People’s Campaign, to a champion of labor and the sanitation [unclear] that ultimately drew him to Memphis. Robert Kennedy’s possibility was his almost mystical communion with the dispossessed of all colors, and the majority electoral coalitions he was able to create against Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, and Eugene McCarthy, in places as different as Indiana, South Dakota, and California.
Kennedy’s skill as a leader was also partially rooted in certain character and psychological traits. His capacity to grow and change, which I almost took for granted 20 years ago, now seems singular in modern politicians.
Media consultants, pollsters, and speechwriters regularly counterfeit new images of old politicians. We have seen the New Nixon, the New Reagan, the New Gephardt, the New Hart, the New Robertson, the New Bush.
Robert Kennedy was internally transformed by direct human experience. He was an open, contemporary, passionate person: more Boston than Harvard, more ’60s, at the end, than ’50s. Neat rows of statistics on a briefing card didn’t move him. But one visit to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, with its unemployed men loitering on street corners, its plague of heroin addiction, its deficit of hope, compelled Kennedy to spend four years creating a model community development project known as Bed-Stuy Restoration. And one journey to Delano, California, with its sights, sounds, and smells, converted Kennedy into a lifelong friend of the Farm Workers’ Union.
Robert Kennedy was capable of real change because he could admit error, to himself and to the rest of us. He admitted he’d been wrong about Vietnam. He admitted he’d been mistaken about McCarthyism in the 1950s. He admitted he’d been slow to realize the historical importance of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, when he was attorney general. But he didn’t just acknowledge his mistake about civil rights. He became the white political leader most committed to black equality and dignity.
Robert Kennedy was always in a state of becoming. What makes his absence so painful is that he was only 42 years old when he was murdered, and his becoming was far from finished.
Robert Kennedy was also tough, really tough. He was not a fake tough guy like Rambo, or Bernhard Goetz, or Elliott Abrams. And he did not advocate fake-tough solutions like Gramm-Rudman budget cuts, or capital punishment, or scapegoating Asians, or bullying Grenada.
Robert Kennedy was tough with adversaries his own size. The public policy disputes he engaged in were with Jimmy Hoffa over mob control of the Teamsters Union; with George Wallace over segregation and racism; with J. Edgar Hoover over the FBI’s abuse of power; with Lyndon Johnson over the war in Vietnam.
And Robert Kennedy was tough on himself, constantly improving himself, rethinking his assumptions, never taking himself too seriously, always making sure he had the smartest, the most challenging people around him. Robert Kennedy was ahead of his time on many issues. In 1957, as chief counsel to the McClellan Committee, he first argued that organized crime had a stranglehold on the Teamsters Union and its rich pension funds. Thirty years later, in May 1987, Roy Williams, the former Teamsters president who had been convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery, admitted that this was the fact.
During the mid-1980s, after Bishop Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize, apartheid became a central moral issue in America and around the world. But in June 1966, Robert Kennedy gave perhaps his greatest speech, in Johannesburg, to 15,000 students. In words that revealed his own existential notion of politics, Kennedy said:
“Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ill — against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence … Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or strikes out against injustice, or acts to improve the lot of others, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Today in South Africa, as the earth’s mightiest wall of oppression cracks and shakes, this 22-year-old speech is quoted again and again.
But don’t misunderstand. Robert Kennedy was not a perfectly consistent man. He was not some trendy flit on the margin of liberal fashion. He had a streak of thought that might be considered conservative by some, although not by me. He believed in the work ethic, in country, in family, in the rule of law. His philosophy was a sometimes unpredictable synthesis of Camus, Pope John, Vince Lombardi, and Aeschylus. Robert Kennedy was religious in his way, and there was a spiritual dimension to his politics that came from this faith. And after his brother’s assassination, he developed a tragic view of life, a private melancholy similar to Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s. Kennedy was patriotic. He felt pride in America and never understood the anti-Americanism of parts of the left. He perceived the essential distinction between patriotism and nationalism. I don’t know if Kennedy ever read George Orwell’s 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” but it describes the difference perfectly. Orwell wrote:
“By ‘nationalism,’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions, or tens of millions of people can confidently be labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.
“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism … since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world, but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the the desire for power …
“It can plausibly be argued, for instance — it is even probably — that patriotism is an innoculation against nationalism.” It is impossible for me to imagine that Kennedy the patriot would have sold armaments to the terrorists who were implicated in killing hundreds of U.S. Marines in Lebanon.
THE MOST UPLIFTING SIGHT and the most agonizing sight I have seen in American politics both involved Robert Kennedy in June 1968.
June 4, 1968, was the day of the California primary. I got up early and drove around Los Angeles, visiting polling locations. Blacks and Chicanos were, by reputation, supposed to be indifferent voters, especially in primaries. But on this day I saw block-long lines of blacks and Latins waiting to vote for Robert Kennedy with hope in their eyes. In Watts, burned by riot three years before, blacks got on line to vote an hour before the polls opened. In some Mexican-American neighborhoods the turnout for this Irish millionaire was 95 per cent, higher even than in middle-class precincts where participation had been a pattern for generations.
Since June 1968, fewer and fewer Americans have voted for president in each election, despite massive campaigns of voter registration. But in my mind’s eye I still see those patient lines of mostly poor people who got up before the sun because they believed they had something to vote for, an individual who might make their lives better.
The saddest sight I have seen in American politics was the view from Robert Kennedy’s funeral train, as it traveled through New Jersey toward Washington on Saturday, June 8, 1968. I saw tens of thousands of poor blacks, already bereft from the loss of Martin Luther King, weeping and waving good-bye on one side of the railroad tracks. And tens of thousands of almost-poor whites on the other side of the train, waving American flags, standing at attention, hands over their hearts, tears running down their faces. To this day I keep searching for one more leader who might reconcile and reunite those two injured classes, still trapped on separate sides of the railroad tracks that run through the American Dream. ■
On April 1, New American Library will publish a new edition of Jack Newfield’s Robert Kennedy: A Memoir, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles in June 1968. Newfield has written a new introduction to his book, and this week the Voice is publishing it, slightly revised.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2020