50 years later, what can Americans learn from Robert Kennedy?

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, shakes hands in a crowd while campaigning for the Democratic party's presidential nomination on a street corner in Philadelphia on April 2, 1968. (AP/Warren Winterbottom)

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.

Advertisement

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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

There is a little revisionist history here. We have no way of knowing what would have happened. It might have been very different but the Kennedys ran as anti communists and john Kennedy helped get the Vietnam war started. Deaths dramatically dropped after Nixon became president.

Also blacks were not the largest demographic group killed in Vietnam. It was Catholics. Whites were 86% of the deaths. Catholics made up 29% of the deaths.

Robert Lewis
2 months 2 weeks ago

The reason that Charles De Gaulle was so devastated by the assassination of John Kennedy was that he had been certain that he had talked the President into withdrawing from Vietnam just as France had withdrawn. He had shared French intelligence with Kennedy during a state visit not long before that revealed that the Viet Cong, far from being a purely Marxist movement, were actually an anti-colonialist movement of national liberation that, because it had the support of the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese people, were unbeatable. De Gaulle's secretary writes this in his memoirs. De Gaulle had a reputation for being anti-American, but it was largely unjustified; he recognized that America was the leader of the free world in the aftermath of World War II, and he did not wish to see our country demoralized and humiliated. And Nixon PROLONGED the war by making the Paris negotiations fail through the secret emissary of Claire Chennault. Right-wing propaganda dies hard in Republican circles, Mr. Cosgrove.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Interesting response. I said nothing incorrect.

And what is "right" wing? The term "right" has no meaning. The term "left" does have meaning but not "right" so why use it?

Francis Gentry
2 months 2 weeks ago

You are correct. "Right wing" has no meaning. How about "ultra-right" or, better yet, "fascist.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

How about "ultra-right" or, better yet, "fascist.

These terms also have no meaning. The fascists of the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's were of the left. Today it it is just a term for people one doesn't like.

Francis Gentry
2 months 2 weeks ago

When JFK was assassinated, De Gaulle said that he had only met two statesmen in his postwar life. One was too old (Adenauer) and one was too young (John Kennedy). I his campaign, Nixon claimed that he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. Well, we know what that one was. I was 21 when JFK was assassinated and had been looking forward to casting my first vote for him in 1964. Well, that's ancient history now, I guess. Bobby Kennedy was--in retrospect--the last great hope that this country would turn out to be decent. The Church, of course, will take many more centuries before it, too, becomes decent and faithful to Christ's teachings. Note: I said Christ, not Paul.

Sanford Sklansky
2 months 2 weeks ago

While you are correct that deaths dramatically dropped. If you scroll down you will see the figures. By the same token troop levels also dropped starting in 1969. Even though the deaths went down it doesn't negate the deaths and destruction. And those numbers are just the amount of troops that were there at any one time. Even if Kennedy had been elected one has to wonder how soon and how long it would take to pull out all the military.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

So you are saying Nixon was cutting back on the war. I agree. Remember this was a Democratic war. The North Vietnamese were horrible people under Ho Chi Minh.

John Walton
2 months 2 weeks ago

Why do Dem strategists have such a hard time with the truth? Combat deaths fell 50% each year after Nixon became President in 1969. We saw what complete withdrawal did in 1974 and the years following when the Democrat Congress refused to fund the South Vietnamese, we saw it again when Obama prematurely withdrew forces from Iraq.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

If a decade of the American presence didn't do the trick, why would funding the South Vietnamese work? If an American soldier died after Nixon's election, he also died after Nixon screwed with the peace negotiations in Paris, similar to Reagan's making deals with the Khomeini-ites to keep the hostages until the Great One was inaugurated.

Sanford Sklansky
2 months 2 weeks ago

The number of troops were all down as well. Would you have liked us to stay even longer? Why would we even fund the South Vietnamese when the North took over the entire country?

Vince Killoran
2 months 2 weeks ago

The clear, archival record indicates that Nixon (and Kissenger) kept the US in the war for many years for nefarious political reasons. They have considerable blood on their hands.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 2 weeks ago

Bobby Kennedy. As a recently graduated 17 year old headed for college, he captured my imagination, and I was, for the first time, volunteering at a little campaign storefront in Bardstown KY. And then the news came -- not so much a surprise in those days of assassinations - but still a lost hope. It would be a long time before I found a political figure who so captured my attention. Bobby stood with the Negroes (as we called them then), he stood with the farmworkers, he stood with the coal miners. I still wonder just what what was behind the need to kill him.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months 2 weeks ago

He also stood with the Israeli illegal annexation of land after the 6 day war. Whether it was out of political expedience or sincere belief that the Israelis had the right to commit this illegal land grab, I don't know, but perhaps had he taken a moral stand in defense of the rule of law and the Palestinians' right to not have their homeland annexed, he may have influenced the mindset of many other Americans and changed the whole biased narrative of that conflict. Which may have resulted in a just settlement between Israel and Palestinians. He was killed over his blind support of Israel, but this is never even mentioned in any retrospective of him.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Bobby stood with the Negroes

I believe Kennedy authorized the spying on Martin Luther King.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

As you said, RFK and JFK were anti-communists. Martin Luther King's main white advisor was Stanley Levison, who had ties with the CPUSA until 1956. Given this information, RFK had no choice. Of course, Hoover had his own agenda.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

The Kennedys were tight with Senator Joe McCarthy. All anti communists.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 2 weeks ago

Bobby Kennedy underwent a change from 1960-1968. It is true that he ordered a wiretapping on MLK. The term for RFK at that time was "ruthless". Robert Kennedy authorized the wiretaps in response to continued pressure from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover because MLK was talking to "communists". The wiretaps later embarrassed Robert Kennedy when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and for president in 1968.

Bobby Kennedy’s relationship with King slowly improved - from contentious to careful to respectful - over the eight years they knew each other, and their causes increasingly overlapped. It was Bobby Kennedy who helped get MLK out of jail. It was Bobby Kennedy who gave such a moving tribute to MLK in Indianapolis on the night of his assassination. The relationship between these 2 men, who were about the same age, was complex, deep and profound. Take a look at the book: "The Promise and the Dream - the untold story of MLK and RFK".
https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-mlk-robertkennedy/book-excerpt-the-…

Robert Lewis
2 months 2 weeks ago

What was "behind the need to kill him" was the military-industrial complex's understanding that he would withdraw from Vietnam, and that he would do to the CIA what John Kennedy told Allen Dulles that he would do to it in his second administration. Sirhan Sirhan's bullets missed Bobby Kennedy, who was shot from behind, into his brain near the left ear, as the autopsy plainly shows. The wall in the direction that Kennedy was facing, not the one in the direction Sirhan Sirhan was facing, is the one that was sprayed with bullets. Also, a notorious rogue CIA agent, who, because of his involvement with Cuban Bay of Pigs volunteers, hated the Kennedys, and who was also in Dallas on November 22, 1963, is pictured in photographs of the crowd in the kitchen where Bobby Kennedy died. Look up "the girl in the blue polka dot dress," if you think I'm repeating a "conspiracy theory." Sirhan Sirhan has more than once passed lie detector tests indicating he has no memory of what he did, and those tests support the idea that he was programmed or hypnotized. In short, RFK was murdered because he would not continue to prosecute the establishment's war in Vietnam, and because they also knew that he'd likely re-open the investigation into his brother's assassination.

Sanford Sklansky
2 months 2 weeks ago

I was watching Sunday Morning today and there was a poll from 68 showing Kennedy only 2 per centage points behind Nixon. There is no doubt in my mind he would have won the election if he had lived. JFK being killed was bad enough, but losing RFK really changed every thing.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

It was unlikely Kennedy would have won the nomination let alone the election. There were only 14 primaries and Humphrey did not compete in any but some of his surogates did and their votes would have gone to him. Humphrey was the sitting Vice President and considered a shoe in for the nomination. The wild card was George Wallace who won 5 states and split the vote in several others. If Kennedy had won the nomination he probably wouldn't have won many states.

Robert Lewis
2 months 2 weeks ago

The University of Wisconsin or Michigan (I forget which) conducted a series of pollings after the election, allowing for a sentimental vote of "sympathy," and they discovered that RFK would have had a more difficult time taking the nomination away from Humphrey than he would have had beating Nixon in the general election, the reason being that he would have gotten many more of the Wallace votes than either Humphrey or Nixon were able to. Also, the Bobby Kennedy of 1968 was several light years away from the Attorney General of JFK's Administration. The transformation can only be called deeply spiritual, and it was recognized by everyone who knew him. Had he lived, Robert Kennedy, who was a phenomenal campaigner, as compared to Humphrey OR Nixon, would have been President, and he would have been able to turn the United States in the direction of far more social and economic justice than it had or has ever known.

Lisa Weber
2 months 2 weeks ago

One can only imagine how the world would be different now if Robert Kennedy had lived. That alternative universe matters less than the lessons we can take from watching video clips of some of his speeches. He was articulate, intelligent, and well-informed. It is amazing and wonderful to watch RFK speak after the unbearable videos of our current president who talks like he is presiding over a voodoo ceremony while he spews lies and hate.

Joseph J Dunn
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Shrum acknowledges some of the many Ifs. Add to them, would RFK have been able to carry Democratic majorities into the House and Senate, to support his plans? Would foreign affairs or economic trends have altered his priorities? Remember, President Obama pledged to accomplish immigration reform during the first year of his presidency. Such is the difference between running for office and dealing with reality.

RFK's life is best appreciated for what it was, not what it might have been. As his brother, Ted, eulogized:
"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
"Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.""
Praise enough for any man.

Steve Magnotta
2 months 2 weeks ago

Amen.

Joshua DeCuir
2 months 2 weeks ago

In the era of #MeToo you would think we could begin assessing the legacy of the Kennedys through a less hagiographic lens. But one has to admire America’s un-ending quest to keep the myth of Camelot alive.

Steve Magnotta
2 months 1 week ago

We can de-mythologize and still see the stark and sad difference between the general caliber of political and social leadership we had in Robert Kennedy's time and the pitiable sickness we've fumbled and stumbled our way into now.
God help America. God bless America.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
2 months 1 week ago

Bob - a remarkable human being. Long live the memory of the great American.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pa., speaks during a meeting in late January at the headquarters of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
“I think we need complete transparency if we’re going to get the trust of the people back,” said Erie Bishop Lawrence T. Persico.
Mélanie Thierry as Marguerite Duras in “Memoir of War.” © Music Box Films
The film tells the story of a woman who worked for the German-controlled Vichy government but secretly joined the Resistance movement.
A. W. Richard Sipe (photo: Facebook)
Sipe's research into celibacy and priestly sexual behavior helped guide the work of church leaders and others responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Catholic News ServiceAugust 17, 2018
Did Pope Francis depart from Scripture and tradition in declaring the death penalty "inadmissible"? Or was his declaration rooted deeply in both?
Tobias WinrightAugust 17, 2018