R.F.K.: The Man Who Would Be President
In America, the cult of personality is the faith of the outcast, the politics of salvation. To be revered beyond reason, the cult-hero need not be particularly talented (Barry Goldwater, for example) nor especially commanding (Adlai Stevenson). But he must express, however ambiguously, the unrealized hopes of the disaffected of his age for a new order of life. The only mandatory article of faith is the belief that the qualities of his personality can somehow become the values of their society. The unhappy few who were madly for Adlai saw in their hero all the elements of compassion, intelligence, and wit which a generation of official liberalism had failed to secure. Twenty-six million Americans knew in their hearts that Goldwater would infuse his own virtues of individualism, morality, and simplicity into the social fabric. Disconfirmation of the prophetic vision by electoral defeat served only to strengthen the faith and spur the efforts of the believers. Stevensonism’s wildest expression was in the galleries of the 1960 Democratic convention. The biggest batch of bumper-stickers for Barry was affixed after the rout of November, 1964. Stevenson Democrats swarmed into Washington with John Kennedy (himself the object of only a posthumous cult) and made much of the New Frontier in the image of their old guru. The Goldwaterites did the same for the Reagan campaign in California.
Now Stevenson is gone and Goldwater forgotten, and the hero who has succeeded them is Senator Robert Francis Kennedy. By luck and pluck he has become the last, best hope of the Sixties and the first of the Seventies. The luck is his family, his fortune, and the assassin (or assassins) of Dallas. The pluck involves the development of a style and a rhetoric compounding some of the more attractive aspects of Bob Dylan and Fidel Castro: tousled hair, plaintive croon, underdoggedness, undefined revolutionism. His special charm is for those temporarily or permanently out of power; they sense that he is, either directly or metaphorically, their ticket to the top. They are more than willing to overlook his shortcomings; they invent virtues and powers for him quite beyond the possibilities of natural endowment. His past is rationalized into a prologue for greatness, and his future is divined as its realization.
IT IS NEITHER dishonorable nor impolitic to ask upon what meat our caesars feed, but as Ralph de Toledano will see, it is useless. Cult-heroes cannot be destroyed by looking at their records or exposing their mistakes. Everybody knows that Robert Kennedy was soft on McCarthy and vicious to Hoffa, that he plays rough in touch football and tough in election campaigns, that his father is a scoundrel and his social life a three-ring circus. But those who believe in him don’t much care; they apologize for his faults and anticipate his perfection. They see his ruthlessness as pragmatism, his sentimentality as humanism, his single-mindedness as dedication.
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