Robert Kennedy and His Times
They were, to be sure, spectacularly flawed—of an ore much mixed with brazen, base elements. But if nothing else, it can be said that the Kennedys afforded this society of the common man and the commonplace with something very close to its first national mythic saga—a line of jaunty and audacious, but strangely star-crossed princes in an American house of Atreus. “I guess the only reason we’ve survived,” the third dryly quipped, with his two older brothers already gone and his younger brother having just capsized in a small plane, “is that there are more of us than there is trouble.” Talking about them in romantic terms is finally inescapable because they constituted, whatever else, a singularly romantic event in this nation’s experience. They became part of the dream life of America in the mid-century: it seems peculiarly appropriate that, toward the close of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 1960, the old briny Irish-Borgian patriarch of the line, Joe Kennedy, would have emerged from the front portal of Marion Davies’s Beverly Hills palace and stood there in a lambent Hollywood sundown to receive his son Jack just after his nomination for president.
It also seems impossible, in any appraisal of them now, to avoid that somewhat tattered term, “existential.” Most of all, coming out of the bland comas of the Eisenhower years, they instantly acted to quicken somehow the nation’s sensation of life—which may be among the greatest of gifts of a leader to a people. Even their famously implacable calculus of political accession was never so tightly calibrated that it was not left open to the exhilarations and creativeness of surprise: they retained the zest to understand, as Jack Kennedy allowed once, that “the finest strategies are usually the result of accidents.” At the same time, although only moderately intellectual themselves, they still seemed to have a compulsion to involve themselves and the power they carried with the brisker minds and more interesting imaginations about them, out of some instinct for what was most alive in the society in their age.
At the least, their effect on the style of political theater forever after them has proven to be, it’s not too much to say, epochal. Robert Kennedy himself as early as 1956 was in despair as a campaign orderly to Adlai Stevenson who, it seemed, delivering professorial recitations with an elegant deliberation from texts even at whistle stops, “could never get it clear that it was not so much what he said as how he said it.” Kennedy had sensed that politics lay as much in manner as matter now, indeed that manner carried cargoes of meaning as real. And after the Kennedys, American politics was permanently altered from largely a pedagogic commerce among principals who tended to evoke at the best sententious, vest-suited school superintendents—Taft, Eisenhower, Stevenson—to an age, for better or worse, of sentiment and flourish, of matinee cavaliers. The current generation of politicians …