50 years later, what can Americans learn from Robert Kennedy?
I had just gone to bed around 3:30 a.m. in my Harvard Law dorm after watching Robert Kennedy’s victory speech after the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in California. It was a shining moment of hope, one shattered nearly instantly when the phone rang and my mother, calling from California, cried out through her tears: “Oh God, it’s happened again.“ Within a few hours, he was dead.
The new Netflix documentary on Robert Kennedy’s campaign, waged half a century ago and yet as vivid as yesterday to us who were young then, seems on film (much of it black-and-white) so compelling that viewers who were not yet born then can grasp why millions flocked to rail sides as his funeral train traveled ever so slowly from New York to Washington. It was a kind of doomed and defiant last rally, a tribute not only to who he had been, but to what might have been.
No one can know whether R.F.K. would have won the 1968 Democratic nomination. That night in California, he had been looking forward to the New York primary, where the incumbent vice president, Hubert Humphrey (who had avoided all other primaries), had delegates on the ballot. If Kennedy could rout Humphrey there and fend off the other anti-Vietnam War candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy, whom he had defeated in California (and some of whose most notable supporters, like “Dump Johnson” leader Allard Lowenstein, were about to defect to Kennedy), he would have a powerful case to make to the party bosses. In that primary-sparse era, the old-line grandees still had the ultimate hold on the nomination.
Millions flocked to rail sides as Kennedy's funeral train traveled ever so slowly from New York to Washington. It was a kind of doomed and defiant last rally, a tribute not only to who he had been, but to what might have been.
Indeed, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had called Kennedy as the California returns were coming in. His message: Good luck. His obvious implication: The Illinois delegation could be with you at the Democratic National Convention. (In fact, Daley would maneuver on convention eve to shift the nomination from Humphrey to the 36-year-old Ted Kennedy; if that last Kennedy brother had agreed and Daley had succeeded, the Chicago mayor would have emerged as the convention’s hero and not its villain.)
If. If. If. And if Robert Kennedy have lived, and been nominated, and defeated Richard Nixon in the fall, the bloodletting in Vietnam would would have ended far sooner, saving tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives. The ideals of the Great Society would have been revived but recast to empower people with more devolved control in their own communities, a constant Kennedy theme. And the nation would have been spared the agony of Watergate, with faith in the presidency renewed rather than further degraded. Assassinations, like elections, have consequences.
But that is history, alternative history. The real achievement of the Netflix documentary is letting us see so much of a Robert Kennedy who, 50 years later, still offers lessons with new and urgent relevance for our own tumultuous and perilous time. Not every telling passage is there. But again and again, his last 85 days in 1968 testify to the power not of politically calculated tub-thumping but of a charisma of connection, authenticity and even raw truth.
Asked at the Indiana University Medical School where the money would come from to pay for what he was proposing, he looked straight at the students in the audience and fired back: “From you.” He reminded them: “You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of fighting in Vietnam.” An exchange like that shames the low demagoguery that today scapegoats immigrants and traffics in sometimes barely coded and at other times undisguised racism.
Beyond this, what is so telling is R.F.K.’s capacity to speak and appeal across the tribal divides of our politics, which is at least as riven now as it was then.
To a predominantly black crowd gathered in the streets of Indianapolis who had not heard about it, he had to announce the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and then he shared the unending pain he felt but seldom if ever mentioned publicly of his brother’s death in Dallas. He pleaded with them to “return home, to say a prayer...for understanding and compassion…to make gentle the life of the world.” They did go home and Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that did not burn that night.
Yet with equal passion and grace, he could marshal blue-collar voters otherwise drawn to Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace. In the Indiana primary, as Jack Newfield reported, he carried the seven counties that Wallace won in the 1964 Democratic primary, while simultaneously capturing 85 percent of the African-American vote against McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin, who was a stand-in for L.B.J. (and, after L.B.J. dropped out, for Hubert Humphrey). Those blue-collar voters sensed that he cared about them, and he did; his concern for them was not abstract, but visceral. He stood genuinely and convincingly for both economic justice and social justice. This is where Democrats faltered in 2016, and this is the great imperative of progressive politics in the years ahead. For Kennedy, economic and social justice could not be separate quests but had to be part of a seamless fabric. Instead of setting one over another, he persuaded people intent on one or the other that he was on their side—because he was.
R.F.K.: "Surely we can learn, at least, to bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again."
R.F.K. never talked down to the country he sought to lead; he aimed to lift people up, to engage and move their hearts and consciences. Hear him in Cleveland: “[W]e can perhaps remember—even if only for a time—that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek—as we do—nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness. … Surely we can learn, at least, to … bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
The same words could and should be said again. The same words are a stark contrast with the low and ugly calls that today come down like a poisoned waterfall from the height of power. And those words are a sharp rebuke to progressives who suggest that the needed trick is to dumb down their rhetoric and resort to their own version of Donald J. Trump’s third-grade vocabulary. That was not F.D.R., J.F.K., Barack Obama—or, on the conservative side, Ronald Reagan. They sought to inspire, not coarsen, and so did Robert Kennedy.
He was not perfect in that 1968 campaign. He entered only after Eugene McCarthy had humiliated Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. He had moments of political expediency; every candidate does. But in a way few candidates have ever been, he was a light in the darkness. He was far from the R.F.K. of the early 1950s, his life and leadership reforged in his civil rights battles as attorney general and in his own harrowing introspection after November 22, 1963. Less than five years later, as he lay shot and bleeding on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he looked up and asked: “Is everybody OK?” America lost not only a potential president but part of its future that night.
Netflix’s new documentary also shows not just who Robert Kennedy was and what might have been, but what we as a country can and must become. In the words of Edward Kennedy, we can hope that “what he was for us and what he wished for others may some day come to pass for all the world.”