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.
Mr. de Toledano took the precaution of avoiding all contact with the subject of his biography. He talked with no one in Kennedy’s entourage, and if he saw the senator it was from the Senate gallery or on TV. He was wise, because proximity to Kennedy easily confuses the objective researcher. To think the worst of Kennedy, as the author was determined to do, it is better to stick to old newspaper clippings and secondary sources in remaindered books. To be sure, there are dangers in such a method: errors will be repeated and distortions will be magnified. The author has escaped neither pitfall. He gets names wrong, characters confused, and incidents tangled. He takes at face value every critic’s estimate of Kennedy’s political behavior and fails to make the slightest distinction between attacks from the Right or Left, from Republican opponents, personal enemies, or quarreling colleagues. But by keeping his distance, De Toledano is at least saved the trouble of sorting out his prejudices from contradictory firsthand impressions.
Anyone who has spent even a few minutes with Kennedy knows how he can get under the skin—by a word or the omission of it, by a glance or the diversion of it. Those who must deal critically with Kennedy should stay as far from him as possible or, alternatively, tie themselves like Odysseus to a mast of opposing politics and sympathies if they must listen to his songs. For he gives an impression utterly at odds with the one taken from the clippings. He is charming and tender, not brutal and rough; he is spontaneous, not scheming; witty, not humorless; self-critical, not cocky. More than the other ninety-nine senators and as much as any public official, he abjures the easy political response, the hypocritical canned answer to serious questions. He is the only non-Rotarian in the club, the one who tells it like it is: as they all say, he is “one of us.”
What all that has to do with Kennedy’s promise as a political leader is quite another matter, and a very important one to consider, bue De Toledano manages to miss it. He is too busy trying to document the hero’s vices. What happens, finally, is that he secures them as virtues. He may not succeed in making Kennedy lovable (as one reviewer suggested), but he does confirm the appeal of those facets of his personality around which the cult has grown. At one point, De Toledano tries to make the case for Kennedy’s overweening political expediency. The example is his “softness” to Walter Reuther—a political ally—in contrast to his attacks on Hoffa. But when the record of Kennedy’s confrontation with Reuther (at Senate labor hearings) shows quite the opposite, De Toledano interprets it as just another instance of ruthlessness:
Bobby’s brother was strenuously preparing for the 1960 campaign and engaged in negotiations with the AFL-CIO for its endorsement. But when Walter Reuther was on the stand, Bobby’s pugnacity, and his need to appear impartial, triumphed over his diplomacy.
The whole book is filled with the peculiar illogic of invective. When Kennedy comes down hard on an issue, it is an irrational instinct for the jugular. When he is temperate, there is a political motive to be found. When he is friendly to McCarthyism, he is merely obedient to his reactionary father; when he is hostile, he is courting the liberals. When he says something anti-communistic, he is fashionable; when he doesn’t, he is treacherous. When Jack Kennedy acts laudably, Bobby is opposed; when Jack acts despicably, it’s Bobby’s fault. The finished portrait of Kennedy is no better than a Peking wall poster—a series of broad brush strokes superimposed on a surface of newspapers which may make interesting reading in themselves, but have no organic connection with the intended message.
De Toledano’s deprecation is useless in the same way that the liberal appreciations fail to make sense of the Kennedy phenomenon. They both assume that Kennedy’s personality is the substance of his politics, that a putative Kennedy Administration will institutionalize all the characteristics which one finds so appealing and the other so appalling. De Toledano translates Kennedy’s personal traits into a ruthless. repressive socialistic society run by labor leaders, Negroes, and other dubious characters, each one trying to push the other into a swimming pool. Some older, schmaltzier liberals share his description of Kennedy, but fear that the new society would not be socialistic. Anti-Johnson Democrats deduce from Kennedy’s fondness for peaceful change and economic development and foresee a state free from imperialism. Moderate civil rights leaders watch him wander through Brooklyn and Mississippi and fantasize an end to racism and exploitation. The near-New Left and the half-hippies hope that somehow Kennedy can create a world of love and pot and participation.
History and social analysis suggest that the outcome would be like none of the above. Whatever his hang-ups and his moods, Kennedy’s politics are determined by the same perceptions which have produced. Lyndon Johnson and George Romney, and in the long run his Administration would have much the same effect as theirs. There is no way of knowing whether Kennedy will continue to be a cult-hero, much less whether he will become a candidate for the Presidency. There are too many variables, which are best left to the newspaper columnists to pick over in the next five years. But, at this point, there is an assumption of popularity and eventual candidacy on the part of the political commentators, Kennedy and his staff, and a large population of demoralized and frustrated voters waiting for the coming of the once and future Kennedy.
SO, AS THE FUTURE KENNEDY moves to a position of political power and responsibility, the latitude he allows himself decreases. He may or may not predicate his actions on a cold assessment of political reward; but that is not the point. He has to deliver, he has to show his effect, and he has to keep winning. Because he cannot think of doing that outside political convention, he must become increasingly conventional.
At first, Kennedy appeared to be on the outer margins of the “system,” poised for a swing beyond, into a position of attack. He exhibited a certain identification with the insurgents of this world: the grape-pickers in California, the Negro political movement in Mississippi, the rebels in Santo Domingo, the blacks in South Africa—even the Viet Cong, whom he thought entitled to the blood of his countrymen. It was not entirely clear how far that identification went; Kennedy always had an inexplicit appreciation for the poignant, the powerful, and the talented. But his support remained primarily moral. He was no insurgent himself.
But whatever swing has come has been inward, toward traditional methods of dealing with social problems. Kennedy supported the grape-pickers’ merger into the AFL-CIO, which may have been helpful to their strike, but which surely limited their capacity to attack political and economic institutions beyond immediate objectives. He made television commercials for Rep. Jeffery Cohelan to use in his Democratic primary fight against the peace-and-civil-rights campaign of Robert Scheer in California. He helped raise funds for the Young Democrats in Mississippi, an elitist, “moderate” grouping allied with the national Democratic Administration and opposed to the politics of the Freedom Democrats. He chided critics of CIA’S activities by reminding them of the complexities of international affairs.
Kennedy’s interest in foreign policy waxes and wanes with the phases of some private moon which he alone observes. Perhaps his cult, and not his own behavior, is responsible for the incredible fuss when he goes abroad—to Latin America and Africa last year, to Europe recently. But in spite of the returns in newspaper column inches, they seem to be more trouble than they are worth. Back home, he delivers occasional speeches on Latin America which describe in fine detail the malignancy of the established order, the misery of the poor, and the failure of US policy. But he makes no assault on the root causes of that failure—the manipulation of US corporate interests and the habit of military support. He saves his complaints for the examples of obvious breakdown. One can look in vain in his speeches for a convincing critique of the sources of imperialism, although it is clear that he would like to clean it up a bit. The same is true for his treatment of South Africa. Kennedy’s visit there last year gave heart to both internal and external opponents of apartheid, and he seemed to understand the depressing realities of resistance. But there his understanding stopped: never a mention of Charles Engelhard nor of the Chase Manhattan Bank, nor a recommendation that the US withdraw support from the South African regime.