On Robert Kennedy

The emotions have had their day. We have witnessed a funeral which for most of us must have been the most moving ever seen, quite different in its monumental privacy from the somber pomp and circumstance of John F. Kennedy’s state funeral. The grief of a family was made visible to millions. We went with the widow to St. Patrick’s at five o’clock in the morning, watched her at solitary prayer, and followed her to the coffin, averting our gaze when she embraced that part of it where the shattered head of her husband lay.

Yet even in those moments of private grief which the nation shared, it was impossible not to think of politics. The President of the United States paid his respects three times to the dead man—at St. Patrick’s, at the Washington rail-road station, and at the graveside—but he had hated that man as that man had hated him. Robert Kennedy regarded Lyndon Johnson as an usurper. He had become Vice President by a fluke, by accepting an offer which he was not expected to accept and which was seriously intended for Stuart Symington. He had been elevated to the Presidency through an assassin’s bullet. It was by virtue of both these accidents that Lyndon Johnson held supreme power. Thus Robert Kennedy considered not attending the first Cabinet meeting of President Johnson, and then made it a point to be late; the symbolic significance of that late entry was not lost upon the President. And in the early morning of the day of President Johnson’s inauguration, Robert Kennedy went to his brother’s graveside, and he went there again in the afternoon with the photographers. He held a grudge against his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver for continuing to work for Lyndon Johnson.

What Robert Kennedy expected and worked for, Johnson feared and tried to prevent: that his tenure of office would be an interregnum between the Presidencies of two Kennedys. Thus Johnson said in 1963 that he would never have a Kennedy on his ticket, and in 1967, in a face-to-face confrontation, he threatened Robert Kennedy with political extinction within six months. To prevent Robert Kennedy from becoming President of the United States had become one of his major political goals, and now, for the second time, not his efforts but an assassin’s bullet settled the issue. How galling it must be for a proud man to contemplate that he owes his elevation to supreme power and the elimination of a hated rival to the accident of two assassinations!

ROBERT KENNEDY, like Lyndon Johnson, was a beneficiary of his brother’s assassination. The most precious inheritance John F. Kennedy left him was the myth of his unfinished stewardship. Nobody can say what John F. Kennedy would have accomplished had he lived. But it is certainly fair to say, as I did at the time, that while he lived as President he achieved little of substance. His domestic program was hopelessly stymied in Congress. In foreign policy, he was responsible for the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs; the Alliance for Progress never got off the ground; he achieved a tactical success and suffered a strategic defeat in the Cuban missile crisis; he started our serious involvement in Vietnam by increasing the number of military advisers from 500 to 10,000; he endeavored to counter the disintegration of the Atlantic Alliance with the stillborn multilateral seaborne nuclear force. Only the limited test-ban treaty and the development of mobile conventional military forces can be counted real successes. The rest was rhetoric—well-chosen, knowing, forward-looking words, political literature of a high order, from which no action followed.

Nevertheless, those words raised the great issues of the day, of which the preceding Administration was not even aware, and proposed action to meet them. They engendered the expectation of great deeds, and were for a time taken as a substitute for them. Thus when John F. Kennedy died without having performed these deeds, it was easy to hold the accident of premature death rather than intrinsic disability responsible for that deficiency. It was likewise easy to expect from the living brother the achievement of the deeds which the dead President’s rhetoric had promised. The public mind, as well as his own, identified Robert Kennedy with his dead brother: what John F. Kennedy would have done had he lived, Robert Kennedy was called upon to do in his stead. This was his mission ordained by fate. For him to aspire to the Presidency, then, was not a matter of choice but an ineluctable duty, dictated not so much by personal ambition and love of kin as by the natural order of things. As a king’s oldest son becomes king on his father’s death, so Robert had to succeed John as a matter of course. So he saw himself, and so he was seen by untold millions at home and throughout the world.

THIS IDENTIFICATION of the living with the dead brother was in an unintended and ironic sense to the point. For while Robert was lacking in the literary and rhetorical gifts, and the intellectual sophistication, of his brother, both had in common the inability to mold political forces, which they could not control, in support of their aims. In other words, both were lacking in that quality which distinguishes the statesman from the politician. For this reason, both were adept at organizing election campaigns where they were in control of their workers as a general is in control of his army. And for the same reason, both were indifferent members of the Senate—and Robert was a bored and unhappy one to boot—because neither knew how to deal with Senators who are not to be ordered about but must be induced by a peculiar Senatorial diplomacy to support a measure advocated by one of them. They must be approached, very much like sovereign nations, on the basis of equality. They must be flattered, argued with, threatened, promised and given advantages. And all this has to be done on a strictly pragmatic basis. Senators like nations, to paraphrase Palmerston, have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

This approach to politics was alien to both John and Robert Kennedy. They were imperial characters who found it difficult to relate themselves to others on the basis of equality. They wanted victory for themselves and defeat for the enemy, but not compromise, which by definition is less than victory. They could give orders, rewarding those who obeyed and punishing those who did not. They had permanent friends and permanent enemies, and they never forgot which was which. Robert Kennedy accepted the courtiers of John F. Kennedy as a matter of course. He never repudiated Joe McCarthy, and never forgave Eugene McCarthy for his nomination of Stevenson in 1960.

Thus Robert Kennedy was an efficient campaign manager, campaigner, and Attorney General; for in all those capacities he was in control. Yet when he had to deal with the uncontrollable warring factions of the Democratic Party in New York State he was helpless; his intervention in the gubernatorial campaign of 1966 was a fiasco. And he made a mess of things when he tried to come to terms with William Manchester, who also could not be controlled.

This disability common to both brothers was aggravated in Robert’s case by his moralistic approach to life in general and to politics in particular. His moral revulsion against evil, manifesting itself in the persecution of wrong-doers and sympathy for the victims of wrong-doing, was one of the two determinants of his being. Thus he prosecuted Hoffa with single-minded ferocity, and he opened his heart to the poor throughout the world. These simple and clear-cut positions, emotionally attractive in themselves, require in the actor an absolute certainty of what is right and what is wrong. Nobody who has deeply reflected upon the issues of morality can have such certainty. But, then, Robert Kennedy was not reflective but emotional. He saw wrong-doing and suffering and was revolted by it. He had to do something about it. But since he was unaware of the ambiguity of moral judgments, he was also unaware of the moral and pragmatic ambiguity of the political act performed in emotional response to a moral judgment. His approach was morally fundamentalist and politically simplistic: put Hoffa behind bars, and stamp out poverty throughout the world. Yet it never occurred to him that such remedial action would call forth new problems and new evils which a statesman must take into account before embarking upon it.

The other genuine determinant of Robert Kennedy’s character was dedication to personal success. He was not a crusader for a cause nor the spokesman for a political philosophy. He wanted to win the election he contested. He might, in the process of that contest, pick up a cause which could be used for increasing his electoral chances, and drop it as soon as it had done its work. But he would not allow a cause, or even an emotion, to stand in the way of his personal success. Thus in 1964 his hatred of Johnson did not prevent him from actively seeking the Vice-Presidential nomination, and, after being rebuffed, the ambassadorship to Vietnam. He would be cautious, calculating, and ambiguous rather than indignant if such a posture appeared to enhance his chances for personal success. His attitude toward the Vietnam War and his entry into the Presidential primaries are cases in point.

SOME SENATORS, such as Church, Fulbright, Gruening, and Morse, opposed our militant military involvement in the Vietnam War from the outset. Kennedy was not among them. When the first wave of protest struck the country in 1965 in the form of the teach-ins, Kennedy did not join it. He did not go on record as opposing the war as such, but only raised doubts about its tactics. One of his most prestigious advisers, Arthur Schlesinger, took the side of the Johnson Administration. Another of his principal advisers, Richard Goodwin, published in 1966 a book advocating the continuation of the war in South Vietnam. When in 1966 sixteen Senators addressed a letter to the President asking for the continuation of the bombing pause, Kennedy’s name was not among them. He spoke out clearly against Administration policies for the first time in February, 1966. He dismissed military victory and withdrawal and advocated a negotiated settlement which would allow the Viet Cong “participation” in the government and would exclude “domination or internal conquest.” For more than a year following this speech, Kennedy kept silent on Vietnam. When he spoke again in March, 1967, he reiterated his previous proposal, amplified by the suspension of the bombing of North Vietnam and the commitment of both sides not to escalate the war. We are here not concerned with the intrinsic merits of these proposals but only with their relation to the position of the Administration. They appear as modifications of that position rather than as clear-cut alternatives to it. Their motivation has been formulated by William V. Shannon:1

His cold shrewdness and his passion enabled Kennedy to abandon his previous commitment to the Vietnam War. Like his father, he has a speculator’s ability to size up a proposition and decide whether it looks like a winner. No emotion, no ideological fixation, no wishful romanticism clouds or confuses this analytic process. Self-interest is the controlling criterion…. Passion, too, played its part. Robert Kennedy’s dislike of Lyndon Johnson, bordering upon hatred, made it easier for him to change his mind about Vietnam the more he thought of it as Mr. Johnson’s war…. Actions in Vietnam that Robert Kennedy would have stoutly defended if JFK had ordered them became suspect in his eyes since their author was LBJ.

A clear example of cautious calculation—and miscalculation—is provided by the manner in which Robert Kennedy entered the Presidential primaries. It is of course axiomatic that in normal times it is a hopeless, if not suicidal, undertaking to contest the renomination of an incumbent President. Kennedy complied with this axiom and probably went beyond it in his repeated endorsement of the reelection of the incumbent President. The axiom required abstention from active competition; it did not require a declaration on television to the effect that “I have great admiration for President Johnson.” Yet when McCarthy’s victory in the New Hampshire primary showed that the times were not normal, Kennedy recalculated his chances and decided to compete for the Presidential nomination.

It is this conjunction of moral certainty about right and wrong with calculating opportunism which accounts for Kennedy’s reputation for ruthlessness. The issue, however, is more complex than that. If Kennedy had gone after Hoffa in the way he did for purely selfish reasons, he would indeed deserve the epithet. However, if one sees oneself as the champion of justice against a monstrous evil, does not the nobility of the end and the magnitude of its denial justify the extraordinary character of the means used? Furthermore, if unconsciously the defense of right against wrong merges with the promotion of one’s own political success so that personal success and the triumph of right come close to being interchangeable, is one not entitled to be as “ruthless” in, say, misrepresenting the record of Senator Keating in the campaign of 1964 as one was in disregarding procedural niceties in the prosecution of Hoffa? Such an argument naturally does not concern itself with the fundamental question as to whether the democratic ethic permits anyone to be so certain in distinguishing right from wrong in the pursuit of personal success. Among the many quotations Robert Kennedy used one does not find what Cromwell said to the representatives of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible you may be mistaken.”

THE SAME CONJUNCTION of an emotionally founded moral certainty with opportunistic calculation accounts for Kennedy’s frequent lack of intellectual perception. The vital force of his being was in his emotions, not in his mind. When in November, 1965, he went down into one of the coal mines of Lota in Chile and saw the misery of the miners, all Communists, he reacted in these words. “If I worked in this mine I’d be a Communist too.” That is to say he implicitly affirmed the moral right and political necessity of revolution. He even affirmed it explicitly by telling his student audience in Lima, Peru, that “The responsibility of our times is nothing less than a revolution…. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.” Yet while he was in the government he was the main promoter of counter-insurgency, intended to counter communist revolution. That technique proved to be utterly useless in Vietnam. Its failure derives from a profound misunderstanding of the nature of contemporary revolutions. For it is absurd to expect that these revolutions, nourished by the vital national and social aspirations of great masses of people, can be successfully opposed by a military strategy developed by academic theorists and applied by military tacticians.

When Robert Kennedy after his trip to Latin America presented his philosophy and program for Latin America in May, 1966, to the Senate in a long and thoroughly researched address—so long as to have had to be delivered in two parts—he again missed completely the fundamental problem of revolution. Robert Kennedy had a personal stake in the Alliance for Progress as one of his late brother’s great innovations in foreign policy. Yet he failed to see—and he was of course not alone in this failure—the fatal ailment which had paralyzed the Alliance for Progress from the very outset. That ailment was the attempt to bring about radical social, political, and economic change through the instrumentality of oligarchies whose political power derives from the status quo and who have therefore a vital interest in preventing such radical change. Thus his emotional and moral reaction to the evils he saw in Latin America and elsewhere in the underdeveloped world was translated into conventional political proposals which had been proved to miss the basic political point in the past and, hence, could not succeed in the future, even if they were supported with greater efforts and more refined techniques.

Yet, and most importantly, that same emotional and moral reaction, which proved to be a dubious asset for Robert Kennedy as a politician, became the source of his final triumph as a charismatic leader. He entered the Presidential primaries as a calculating politician who was quick to see a miscalculation and set it right, and he was still one in the Indiana campaign when he played to the prejudices of the electorate. Yet when he made his last speech in Los Angeles, he had become the adored leader of millions of disillusioned people and the incarnation of the hopes of the disinherited of America. His capacity for moral indignation had found its cause, the voice of moral protest had found its audience, the malaise that ails America appeared to have found its cure. In this last respect, Robert Kennedy came to perform the same function in 1968 as that which his brother had performed in 1960. That is, he faced the problems of the day with the rhetoric appropriate to them, rather than with that of yesterday or the day before. This is the great advantage he had over Humphrey and Nixon.

It is of course idle to speculate as to what Robert Kennedy would have made of this great asset had he lived. There is no doubt that he was ill at ease bearing the mantle of the charismatic leader. His hair was turning gray, his face had become deeply lined, and his hands trembled, and there was frequently a stridency in his voice, a tenseness in his manner which one does not expect to find in a man destined to be a charismatic leader. Was he the driver on a road he had freely chosen, or was he driven by a fate he could not escape?

But even if Robert Kennedy had not fulfilled the promise which millions of people saw in him, he would have performed a vital function for America. He noticed three months before his death, what Rockefeller has just discovered, too, that the mood of the country and, more particularly, of large groups within the Democratic Party does not conform to the traditional pattern of the two-party system. A great many people are aware of the bankruptcy of the philosophies, the programs, and the policies by which we have been governed. They are aware of the unbridgeable gap between the reality of the issues with which we must come to terms, and the modes of thought and action by which we are being governed. They think that it is time for a change, not just in the personnel of the government—replacing Mr. Johnson with either Mr. Humphrey or Mr. Nixon—but in the modes of thought and action themselves. Kennedy gave a voice to these aspirations.

THAT THIS VOICE has been forever stilled is the great loss the country has sustained. Even if Robert Kennedy had lived, it is likely he would not have been nominated in 1968. Yet this passionate voice, contemporary and addressing the future, would have reminded us that there exists an alternative to Humphrey’s liberalism of thirty years ago and to the timeless opportunism of Nixon. It would have been proof to those of us who were ready to opt out of the American political system altogether at the beginning of this year, not only that there are alternatives to the obsolete philosophies and policies of the powers-that-be but that there are men who are willing to search for those alternatives and put them into effect.

Only Eugene McCarthy today fulfills that function. That so relatively ineffectual a campaigner can have such a success is a measure of the extent and the depth of the dissatisfaction in the ranks of the Democratic Party. It is also the measure of the success Robert Kennedy might have achieved had he lived—and indeed of what might still happen if a sufficient number of disenchanted voters demonstrate to the managers of the Democratic convention that Humphrey cannot win.

Conversely, McCarthy’s success points to the danger the Republic now faces. If these masses, deprived of a charismatic leader, should find his candidacy faltering, they would have no place in the present American political system. The unrepresentative character of American democracy might well become so extreme as to be intolerable to them. In consequence, they may either sink into political apathy or attack the system from without. In either case, the political forces most likely to benefit from the disintegration of the Kennedy camp would be those who defend the status quo—which, in view of the widespread disaffection, can only be defended by fascist means. It goes without saying that such a defense would be undertaken in the name of law and order and democracy.

Thus the myth of Robert Kennedy is likely to be very similar to that of his late brother: the leader who showed us the promised land and would have led us into it had he lived. On the strength of the historic record, one can only say that they knew that there was a promised land and that it wasn’t the one we were living in. It will forever remain a moot question as to whether they would have been able to lead us into it had they lived. But that intellectual and emotional awareness of the distance between the actual conditions of American life and what they ought to be set them apart from Nixon and Humphrey. For Nixon is convinced that the status quo is all we need to have, promoted by private enterprise and protected by fiscal responsibility and the police. Humphrey, on the other hand, enthusiastically believes that there is nothing wrong with America that could not be remedied by liberal reform. His call for a domestic Marshall Plan shows clearly the limits of his political imagination. For, as I pointed out in 1956,

while the Marshall Plan has regenerated the productive capacity of Western Europe, it has left its economic, social, and political structure by and large intact. The dangers to the stability and strength of Western Europe which have grown in the past from the defects of that structure have continued to grow because those defects were not repaired. The Marshall Plan almost completely lost sight of those roots of instability and unrest which antedated the emergency and were bound to operate after it was over.2

What was true of the original Marshall Plan would also be true of Humphrey’s domestic version. Their breadth of vision sets the two dead Kennedys apart from their contemporary rivals. For that alone, they have earned the gratitude of their countrymen, and no myths are needed to evoke or deepen it.


R.F.K. September 26, 1968

  1. 1

    In The Heir Apparent: Robert Kennedy and the Struggle for Power, Macmillan (1967).

  2. 2

    This statement by the way has been used by the White House, with Mr. McGeorge Bundy as the spokesman, to show that I was “opposed” to the Marshall Plan.