The Kennedy Legacy
American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy
No Hail, No Farewell
Who Needs the Democrats?
The king and the crown prince are dead, and the heir apparent in disgrace. But the legend lives on, undiminished by promises unfulfilled, mistakes better forgotten, and doubts stilled by the cold hand of death. It is a tale with all the elements of a feudal chronicle—murders, usurped crowns, vendettas—and no shortage of troubadors to tell it. Theodore Sorensen, alter ego of John F. Kennedy and more recently a spurned aspirant to the public trust, now tells us, in words that will come as no surprise, that he views the Kennedy legacy “as the most important body of ideas in our time…a unique and priceless set of concepts…that endures and gives us hope.”
We need not doubt Sorensen’s sincerity—we all take hope where we can find it—to wonder what so great a faith rests upon. Whatever the Kennedy legacy may be, and we are told that it “can no more be summed up in a book than a Mozart concerto in a series of black notes,” the Kennedy record was one of great expectations rather than inspiring accomplishments. But Sorensen has a weakness for the overexcited phrase, and his pseudo-Homeric prose (“let the word go forth…we shall pay any price, bear any burden…now the trumpet summons us again…ask not what your country can do for you…”) both shaped and defined the posturing heroics of the Kennedy era.
We can sympathize with Sorensen’s difficulty in defining the exact nature of the legacy he extols, although we are told that “to love each other like brothers…is the heart of the Kennedy legacy.” Lest this hippie message seem sketchy, he also urges us to work hard, have faith in man’s ability to change our society, and not lose hope. Not by accident is “hope” a recurring word, for if ever there was a politics of hope, it was that practiced by the Kennedys. Our hope that they had a remedy for the social ills they described so graphically, their hope that we would be patient while they figured out what to do. The legacy they left is the enduring hope that somehow things would have been better were they still here.
Sorensen embellishes the Kennedy legacy in sticky, though no doubt heartfelt, panegyrics (“there has never been in American public life a family like the Kennedys”), ladies’ magazine commentary (“good taste and finesse governed not only their selection of clothes…”), political PR (“the…question asked everywhere was when the Kennedys would return to the White House”), and resentment at the usurper (“Lyndon Johnson…wanted to emulate their graceful wit and intellectual elegance”). The purpose of The Kennedy Legacy is to build a platform for what Sorensen calls a “peaceful revolution for the seventies.”
The program, which appeared in time to publicize, but not noticeably assist, his effort to fill Robert Kennedy’s old seat as senator from New York, is studded with such homilies as “we must pre-empt the extraordinary before the extremists seize it for their own…we must devise a new strategy for living instead of fighting…the United States must become the leading city of the world, not one of its largest villages.” It is not surprising that the voters were not impressed by such summoning trumpets, for as John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out in his pamphlet, Who Needs the Democrats?, “evasion, however disguised by rhetoric, moral purpose, or soaring phrase, comes over increasingly as crap.”
As the brief reign of John F. Kennedy recedes into the historical past, leaving the Vietnam war as its permanent monument, and as Robert Kennedy’s unending succession of agonizing reappraisals now seems little more than a footnote to the tribulations of Lyndon Johnson, it is sometimes hard to remember what the Kennedy legend is all about. But it does exist, as one is reminded in Arthur Schlesinger’s description, in A Thousand Days, of JFK’s inauguration when “the future everywhere seemed bright with hope…fresh winds were blowing. There was the excitement that comes from an injection of new men and new ideas.” We now know that those fresh winds were blowing hot air, that a good many of those new ideas were tired clichés in vinyl wrappings, that some of those new men wrought disaster, and that their excitement came from a lust for power. But all that came later. At the time the passing of power from Eisenhower to Kennedy seemed to presage, from the poem that Robert Frost started to read at the inauguration but was unable to finish, “the glory of a next Augustan age.”
The old sage knew what he was talking about. The era did turn out to be Augustan, at least in its pretenses (“…of a power leading from its strength and pride/ Of young ambition eager to be tried…”), but the glory was short-lived. It got tarnished somewhere around the Bay of Pigs and never recaptured its former glow. That fiasco was followed by the failure of summit diplomacy at Vienna, the manipulation of public anxiety over Berlin, a dramatic jump in the arms race, the unnecessary trip to the brink during the Cuban missile crisis, timidity on civil rights, legislative stalemate in Congress, and the decision to send the first American troops to Vietnam. Somehow everything went wrong, and increasingly the crusading knight gave way to the conventional politician who had no answers for us. John F. Kennedy’s assassination came almost as a reprieve, forever enshrining him in history as the glamorous, heroic leader he wanted to be, rather than as the politician buffeted by events he could not control.
By the time Robert Kennedy emerged from his grief over the murder of his brother and began maneuvering for the crown he believed was rightfully his, the imperial optimism of the early Sixties had given way, under a succession of failures at home and abroad, to disillusionment and rebellion. While the first Kennedy sought to lead us to the lofty peaks in forming “a grand and global alliance…that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind,” the second Kennedy faced the less exhilarating but more demanding task of saving us from ourselves. Robert Kennedy stood somewhere between the new politics and the old, increasingly aware of the injustices of American society, yet never quite able to break loose from the traditional beliefs that formed his view of the world. In his radical rhetoric lay his strength with the young and the apostles of change; in his traditionalism was his appeal to the Democratic party machines. It was a powerful combination.
Far more passionate than his brother John, he was essentially a moralist who saw the world as divided between good and evil. He wept for the poor, touched the bloated bellies of starving children, and was outraged by injustice. He was equally emotional and single-minded in his hatred of those he believed to be evil. His obsessive persecution of James Hoffa was the other side of his compassionate plea for the grape pickers. Unlike his brother, he could believe in causes. Indeed, he needed them to satisfy some deep inner compulsion that could be glimpsed in those driven, tormented, icy eyes. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who has seen generations of politicians come and go, put her finger on the difference between the two Kennedys when she told Jean Stein: “I see Jack in older years as the nice little rosy-faced old Irishman with the clay pipe in his mouth, a rather nice broth of a boy. Not Bobby. Bobby could have been a revolutionary priest.”
The complex bundle of emotions that was Robert Kennedy come tumbling out in the interviews taken by Jean Stein and assembled by George Plimpton under the title American Journey. These interviews, made mostly with the great, the near-great, and the hangers-on who traveled on the train bearing Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington, are remarkably revealing. What they reveal is less Kennedy the man than Kennedy the symbol to which people responded in different ways—some as a roller coaster to power, others as a politician who would end the war and reform the society, and to millions as a charismatic leader who could somehow understand their anxiety.
The last journey of Robert Kennedy marked more than the death of a leader; it was the end of a whole era of American politics—one in which it was possible to believe that good government could come from good style, that society could be changed if only the right rhetoric could be found, that a single man could correct everything that was wrong, that things would be all right if we just loved one another. It was not that the Kennedys said it would be easy. They often evoked sacrifice, hard work, and endurance. Rather it was that they nurtured our fantasies. The last fantasy was shattered with the murder of Robert Kennedy. The remarks of those who rode his funeral train—speechwriters, politicians, reporters, advisers, friends, celebrity-hounds—reflected the confusion of people who no longer were sure what they believed in or what the future held. “I’m very narrowly programmed,” Adam Walinsky said to someone on the train. “I can do research and write speeches for a candidate named Robert Kennedy. What can I do now?” For Stewart Alsop the long trip through the cities and the scarred landscapes
…had a slightly phantasmagoric, unreal quality to it. A little like that play, Outward Bound. All those gay creatures going off into a kind of nothingness. The train went on and on, and you saw those enormous crowds…particularly near the big cities and particularly the blacks. You got a curious feeling of disembodiment, as if the experience were unreal…. Especially after those people were killed by the train…and as the train got later and later….
If the scene inside was a cross between an Irish wake and a Jewish shiva, the scene outside was like the passing of some great feudal chief before his assembled subjects. The other America, the people without style or glamor—housewives in hair curlers, nuns in sunglasses, school-children, blue-shirted workers—came to the tracks for the last journey of Robert Kennedy. “I seen people running all over!” an electrician exclaimed. “They tried to touch the train as it went by.” “The tracks were lined with more people than I’ve ever seen,” another trainman said. “Everyone had a rose or a banner. They were throwing roses at the train.” Some of them carried signs saying: “Who Will Be The Next One?” and “We Have Lost Our Last Hope,” and simply “The Gebharts Are Sad.” Perhaps these people sensed that they were saying good-bye to more than Robert Kennedy.
The question remains why the murder of the two Kennedys brought forth such an extraordinary outpouring of public grief. Why did so many who did not particularly admire them in life feel an irreparable sense of loss at their death? Why were the Gebharts sad? Why did a revolutionary like Tom Hayden come to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to mourn over the casket of Robert Kennedy? Why, in the homes and shop fronts of every black ghetto do you see photos of Martin Luther King flanked by the Kennedy brothers as a Holy Trinity of martyred saints?