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In Memory of Bobby and in Support of Hillary

 

The American politician Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), brother of the assassinated President John F., during a 1967 visit to London.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

THE AWFUL GRACE OF GOD

11.20.15

What We Lost When Bobby Kennedy Died

In honor of RFK’s 90th birthday, Jeff Greenfield, who worked as one of his speechwriters, explains why his legacy still looms so large.

He has been dead five years longer than he was alive. More than two-thirds of Americans were not yet born when he was killed, and if you were old enough to have voted for him the year he sought the Presidency, you’ve been on Medicare for at least three years. To remember that he was born ninety years ago is to understand just how long ago he died—and perhaps to remember as well that he was the third brother to die violently before his 50th birthday. When Press Secretary Frank Mankiewicz announced his death, standing atop an automobile outside a Los Angeles Hospital, he ended with a sentence that encompassed despair and rage: “He was 42 years old.”

So why does Robert Kennedy remain so powerful a loss for so many who remember him—and, remarkably, for so many who know him only in the images they see in retrospective histories. For his detractors—and they are legion—it is little more than the rose-colored distortions of sentimentalists or naive liberals. For his acolytes, it is the loss of what would have been a Restoration, a return to the earlier years of the 1960s, before the War, before the racial and cultural divides that cleaved a country. (As one sign had it during a Kennedy rally in Indiana in 1968: “Camelot Again.)

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It was the very first election in which I could vote. As a kid, I had campaigned for JFK.  It was a school assignment, but I would have done it anyway.  My sister and I had a box full of pins and stickers that we could not give away in our Republican town.  If my mother hadn’t pitched them when we moved, they might, later,  have helped finance my way through grad school. But as joyous as I was that my candidate won that election, and as destroyed as I was by his assassination, my support for Bobby Kennedy was never predicated upon a return to Camelot.  So I disagree with Mr. Greenfield on that point.  I also disagree with his header because Bobby Kennedy did not die. He did not just fall and expire on the floor of the hotel kitchen. He was felled by an assassin.  Murdered.  Other than those two points, I agree with  Mr. Greenfield and appreciate his reminder that we would be wishing Bobby a Happy 90th under more fortunate circumstances.

I was an anti-war person and had spent months following and helping Eugene McCarthy’s campaign.  He was not all that likable, sort of dry, and I really was not paying a lot of attention to his platform except that most of it consisted of ending the war.  That was why I backed him… until St. Patrick’s Day 1968,  the day Robert Francis Kennedy threw his hat in the ring also on an anti-war agenda. I flipped like a Solo cup.

On the campaign trail, Bobby was a powerful and effective speaker and could get very riled over injustice.  He took up the cause of migrant farm workers, and we saw him on the back of pick-up trucks parked in the fields.  Cesar Chavez would be beside him, and he would be wearing that jacket that was always too loose.  It was Jack’s and too big for him.  He always looked a little sad, no matter how jubilant and funny he might be, and there was that jacket on him that broke my heart.

Bobby was livelier, wittier, and much better prepared, as Greenfield points out, from his days in the White House, than Gene McCarthy could ever have hoped to be.  It was easy to be enthusiastic about him.  His agenda was broader than McCarthy’s with social justice planks. He appealed to our better selves. When we lost him, we lost all of those things Mr. Greenfield mentions.  I lost all hope for the 1968 election.  My first vote was a robotic one for Hubert Humphrey who lost.  I thought we had already lost back in June.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan won Bobby’s senate seat.  A brilliant college senior wrote a thesis in which she analyzed some of Moynihan’s senate initiatives along with the effects of certain government programs on his constituency.  LBJ waged a war on poverty, and there was a lot of controversy around government programs at the time.  On page 76, she compared “decentralization” in Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Moynihan’s constituency) with “unconstitutionalism” in Little Rock.  She had no idea when she wrote that sentence that she one day would be First Lady of Arkansas and later occupy the seat Moynihan had inherited from Bobby thus representing Ocean Hill-Brownsville herself.

In Arkansas and in her campaign for and service as New York Senator, Hillary Clinton’s similarities to Bobby emerged loud and strong.  Her interest in improving the schools, her attention to “the little people”  – the ones who cannot finance anything for a politician – were Bobby’s interests.  She had a value added.  She saw the degree to which the role and rights of women impacted families and the economy and always put families, parents, and children at the core of her efforts.  She listened to people.  She visited farms and small, post-industrial towns. Like Bobby, she was called a carpetbagger,  but she won that seat – twice –  and served the people of New York and the United States with vigor and honor.  In 2008, 40 years after Bobby, she was my candidate.  Truly the first to have won my heart in the way Bobby had – to the extent Bobby had – no, even more,  she was and is Bobby plus.  I have always said that about her.

Jeff Greenfield is right.  We lost a great deal – in our history – when we lost Bobby.  We cannot know what he might have done. We cannot know what kind of party we might have today had he survived.  It was a loss, a huge one.  It is most unusual to be given a second chance.  We had that with Hillary in 2008, and it did not go our way.  A few weeks after suspending her 2008 campaign, she was, as she had promised to be, on the campaign trail for the presumed nominee. (Many supporters peeled off for that, but that’s why we love her.  She keeps her word.)  When I say “trail,” I mean she was in muddy fields in California with migrant farm workers.  Just like Bobby.

Now we have yet another opportunity.  Hillary is the candidate.  She is the one who will do things Bobby would have and more. I am not saying she is exactly like him, she is not, but they were/are kindred spirits.  He would have loved her.  I cannot help thinking that.  We have one more chance to elect someone who fights for ordinary hard-working Americans – for us.  Like Bobby, she has been in the White House and knows the ropes.

In the same way Bobby was not running to finish his dead brother’s term, Hillary is not running for her husband’s third term.  She is running for her first term.   Supporting Hillary is the best tribute we can pay to Bobby’s memory in my book. She is that voice of which Mr. Greenfield speaks.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers remarks to gun violence prevention advocates at the Brady Center's annual Brady Bear Awards Gala in the Manhattan borough in New York, November 19, 2015. Hillary Clinton is the recipient of the inaugural Mario M. Cuomo Leadership Award. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers remarks to gun violence prevention advocates at the Brady Center’s annual Brady Bear Awards Gala in the Manhattan borough in New York, November 19, 2015. Hillary Clinton is the recipient of the inaugural Mario M. Cuomo Leadership Award. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

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