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RFK and the promise of tough idealism

June 6, 2008, marked the sad 40th anniversary of the day Robert F. Kennedy was killed in California after declaring victory in that day’s Democratic primary.  Beyond the attention recently given that event by Hillary Clinton’s mention of it in the context of her own presidential run and the tributes extended to Ted Kennedy that evoke the family’s broader history of national service, the papers today note the fact that the Kennedy family will attend a Mass for RFK at Arlington National Cemetery.

When I was an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, I was in the habit of reading biographies as a form of hero worship:  I would settle on some figure and then devour everything I could find about him or her, finally moving on to another.  For some reason I can’t remember, I went through a Bobby Kennedy phase:  starting with Arthur Schlesinger’s Robert Kennedy and His Times, I also read Halberstam and Newfield and Whitcover along with the speech and commemorative collections that popped up in the aftermath of the tragedy.  It wasn’t that I found him perfect – to the contrary, several of my older friends influenced my impressions with their expressed deeply conflicted views of his life.  Some I talked to never forgave him his late entrance into the 1968 Democratic presidential contest because of the damage they felt it did to the anti-war movement.  Still others couldn’t get past what seemed to them the emptiness of his charisma, his connections to what they saw as the darker hyper-ambitions of the Kennedy family, and his presumptuousness in offering himself as a national figure.  At the time I was not much predisposed to be attracted to his political program.

But all of this made him more compelling to me as a public figure.  I was gravitating to orators at the time, and his eloquence (influenced by an appreciation for the classical educational tradition) struck me as deeply moving.  By the time I was seriously encountering him (this in the early 1980’s, more than a decade after his assassination) the biographies were dominated by hagiography, a tendency still present today though subverted to some extent by a tougher second wave of 1960’s histories appearing near the century’s turn.

I recently heard a talk where a scholar of the period pointed to the fact that politicians like Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were able to successfully, if only for a brief moment, articulate a heroic liberalism now long gone, but which aroused a sense in the nation that the utopian goals of a nation without poverty or racism or illiteracy were actually obtainable with concerted public action.  Long overshadowed by deepening skepticism about the possibilities for such action, it is easy to forget how ennobling such efforts were and how deeply they animated public life both positively and negatively (the latter in the sense of activating profound conservative opposition that, assisted by strongly advocated anti-communism, emerged victorious with Ronald Reagan’s election).  This conservative reaction, which tapped into genuine frustration with the raised expectations of circa-1960’s liberalism, have largely discredited any efforts to seriously enlist the federal government in the public policy challenges of our time, a fact evidenced by the collapse today of potential although minimal climate change legislation (and more by the fact that even its advocates didn’t expect to accomplish anything more than airing the issue for a couple weeks on C-SPAN).

Because liberal politics were already significantly stymied by the time of the Nixon presidency, and because RFK seemed to tap into a national craving for a revitalized public sector, his candidacy has been a signifier of possibilities lost and is often offered as Exhibit A for what if histories of the period.  By the time RFK’s 75th birthday was being commemorated in 2000 (a date that sparked a new wave of Kennedy-era biographies and recollections), it was common for his fans to argue that an RFK presidency would have spared the nation the late traumas of Vietnam escalation and racial radicalism.  Who knows?  Today the AP account of the anniversary quotes his daughter Kathleen:  “We are still dealing with those kinds of issues today and because of that, many people are asking what would Robert Kennedy do?  What is his legacy?  What did he care about?”

With the nomination of Barack Obama and the potential ascendancy of a next generation public turn back to consensus problem solving, my interest in Kennedy relates more to the historical peculiarity of his last years and other questions:

Did Kennedy’s decision to run for president save or condemn the left?  A 2004 biography of Eugene McCarthy written by Dominic Sandbrook details the deep divisions on the left occasioned by Kennedy’s decision to seek the nomination after LBJ pulled out.  Sandbrook lays out a tale of religious rivalry; apparently McCarthy was angry at John Kennedy’s 1960 run for the presidency, thinking he (EM) was the natural choice to be the nation’s first Catholic president.  At the news Robert had been killed, McCarthy is said to have turned to others in the room and said, “He brought it on himself,” astonishing them (pg. 203).  The antagonisms had been nurtured by Hubert Humphrey, who it turns out was secretly funding McCarthy’s campaign in the hope that Eugene’s success would diminish Bobby.  All this is complicated further by the decent likelihood that even despite his California win, Humphrey would have won the nomination anyway (Kennedy and McCarthy having likely split the anti-war vote in a nominating contest much less dominated by primary contests than today).

How historically idiosyncratic was Kennedy’s brand of tough liberalism?  Watching the absurdly gendered conversation these last few days over whether a campaign to push Hillary Clinton onto the 2008 Democratic ticket will emasculate Obama (thus if he is to look strong he must resist HRC), a network commentator passingly noted how weak Democratic candidates have seemed since Robert Kennedy, who managed to seem both politically brutal and compassionate at the same time, an Ur figure for all of today’s I’m fighting for you! politicians.  RFK’s liberalism seemed no-nonsense and pragmatic and utopian and dreamy all at the same time, a neat trick enabled by his own early record of prosecutorial fervor, softened by a new maturation and seriousness of purpose acquired as he grieved his brother’s death in public view.

Twentieth century American liberalism always struggled to defend its own patriotism against the charges that it favored fascism and communism and socialism and amoralism and the collapse of traditional family values.  After Vietnam discredited Johnson and Watergate ended Nixon, the wholesale collapse of confidence in the federal government as an agent of positive change has been durable, considerably complicating the rhetorical task for politicians eager to reactivate its energies.  But the Kennedy liberalism of the 1960’s seemed to offer the prospect for a more realistic liberalism than willed on the nation by LBJ, an ideology rooted in a supreme confidence about the prospects that intellectualism and social science and sophisticated policy planning could save the day. This best and brightest mentality was caricatured by its opponents as naivete, of course, but the deeply pragmatic impulses of the period remain attractive.  Michael Latham’s interesting book on this topic has identified the allure and downsides to such a worldview:  fixated on the prospects for progress and modernization, 1960’s social critics adopted both its optimism and hubris, a sense that communities could be systematically improved by smart well-intentioned people whether they were working in Bedford-Stuyvesant or Saigon.

Might Kennedy’s boldest proposals have succeeded?  Running for president, Robert Kennedy imagined that a million Americans might be persuaded to volunteer to work against poverty.  A million Americans.  Today’s national service proposals envision paying 40,000 or 50,000 young people to assist with programs like Americorps, a number embarrassingly smaller and more a tribute to the allures of pure symbolism than any commitment to social change or sincere effort to activate civic interest.  Kennedy’s speeches on racial reconciliation are astonishingly bold for a time when the prospects of race war seemed a real possibility to many Americans.

It is easy to conflate the rhetorical vision (and the resulting mania it produced in Kennedy’s audiences) for the harder outcomes of legislative negotiation.  The sense of identification Kennedy achieved with some of his audiences would inevitably have led to disappointment.  Cesar Chavez, interviewed for an oral history project on RFK, found it difficult to articulate this sense of connection:  “It was electrifying.  I mean, like, just everybody was out there.  The polls will show you.  That line is very seldom crossed: it was like respect, admiration, love, and idealization.  God, I can’t explain it.”

SOURCES:  Brian Witte (AP), “40 Years Since RFK Death,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6 June 2008, pg. A4; Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004); Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer, “The Incomplete Revolution: The Origins of the Conservative Movement in the 1970s Help Us Understand Contradictions in Today’s Republican Party,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 March 2008, B7-B9; Marc Hetherington, Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005); Michael Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill:  UNC Press, 2000).


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