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Waiting for Bobby

Jack Germond, who enjoys his reputation as a tough political reporter, becomes the infatuated man in the middle when it comes to Robert F. Kennedy:

What would have happened if Bob Kennedy had survived? My guess is that he would have defeated Nixon [in 1968], whose hands seemed to shake every time a Kennedy was mentioned. And my guess is that the war would have ended sooner and the racial rioting have been less severe.1

It is a form of wishful thinking many people share, one based originally on a claim made the day after the Indiana primary of April 1968 in a column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who said that “while Negro precincts were delivering around 90 percent for Kennedy, he was running 2 to 1 ahead in some Polish precincts” (where George Wallace had been strong in 1964). Thus was born the dream that RFK could have bridged the deep divide between black and white voters in that tempestuous year of Dr. King’s assassination—if only that had not been followed by Kennedy’s own assassination.

The Evans-Novak error became the stuff of many liberals’ dreams in the succeeding years. Jules Witcover wrote in his book on RFK’s 1968 campaign that Kennedy in Indiana won “more than the usual number of blue-collar whites for a Democrat in the [white] backlash neighborhoods.”2 Describing the same primary, David Halberstam claimed that “Poles in Gary came through, 2-to-1, despite the machine.”3 In 1979, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that Kennedy could have been a new Franklin Roosevelt, a president who “carried his nation farther toward reconciliation” because he bridged the gap between “order and dissent.” He quoted several liberals endorsing this view, including Paul Cowan of The Village Voice, who said Kennedy was “the last liberal politician who could communicate with white working class America.”4

This bit of creative political history should have died a quiet death in 1970, when Kennedy’s friendly biographers William vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman took a more careful look at the election results in Indiana. They noted that in Lake County, which contains the industrial city of Gary, Eugene McCarthy carried thirteen of the fourteen cities or townships outside Gary that had gone for Wallace in 1964, and he beat Kennedy 49 percent to 34 percent in seventy of the eighty-one white precincts in Gary itself. In Gary, Kennedy’s vote was almost entirely (90 percent) a black one. The Poles had not come through for him. The coalition never existed. A statewide poll taken three weeks before the primary showed Kennedy beating McCarthy 41 percent to 19, yet the final tally gave only 42 percent for Kennedy, while McCarthy’s vote jumped up to 27 percent, showing that Kennedy’s intense last-minute campaigning had actually driven votes away from him. According to Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman, all the undecided vote had swung to McCarthy, and 49 percent of Democrats in an Indiana poll at election time had expressed negative feelings about Kennedy, 55 percent calling him “too political.”5 He was not seen as the healer in a time of heated division but as a divider. Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman quote polls from shortly before Kennedy’s death showing that 71 percent of those asked in California if Kennedy could “bring peace to the cities” answered no, and 61 percent said that he “spends most of his time courting minority groups.”6

Ronald Steel, in In Love with Night, his book analyzing the infatuation with RFK, concludes with Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman that the idea that Kennedy won any significant part of the Wallace vote in Indiana is “a combination of wishful thinking, misperception, and spin control.” He gives other reasons for questioning the idea that Kennedy could have beat Richard Nixon in 1968, even if he had won the Democratic nomination (which was itself a long shot). Kennedy had wooed black and radical “outsiders” in his Senate years, Steel says, because he had, at first, nowhere else to go trolling for support while the Democrats were sticking with Lyndon Johnson. But when Johnson withdrew from the race after Eugene McCarthy had assumed the leadership of young opponents to the war, Kennedy needed to take traditional Democratic support away from Hubert Humphrey (who declared his candidacy too late to be in the Indiana primary but had support among the party bosses). Gaining that support would have been hard enough in itself, especially in the South (still considered Democratic territory before the triumph of Nixon’s Southern strategy), where Kennedys in general were hated, and RFK most of all.

This difficulty was increased a thousandfold by the fact that Kennedy was going after the support of the same set of party bosses who had been with his brother in 1960—people like Jesse Unruh in California, but most of all Mayor Daley in Illinois. David Halberstam, who was traveling with Robert Kennedy in his last days, says that liberal advisers like Adam Walinsky were “shattered” by the way Kennedy “had praised all the old hacks of the party,” and by the perception that “Daley might now be the most important single man in the party.” He quotes Frank Mankiewicz: “One of his other big mistakes in 1968 is going to be that he thinks Dick Daley regards him in the same light that he regarded Jack Kennedy. It’s a very different time now.” Kennedy’s obsession with getting support from Daley had begun early, even before he entered the race. When Arthur Schlesinger and others suggested that he endorse McCarthy in New Hampshire to increase Johnson’s vulnerability, he said no, “partly, I think, because it would put him in an odd position with Dick Daley and other professionals.”

Thus, from the very (late) beginning of his 1968 campaign, the strains in Kennedy’s effort to bridge the cultural fissures in that seismic year were showing. Before he had won over what he called “the A kids” from McCarthy (the antiwar activists, who resented his tardy effort to ride on the gains their man had made), his appeals to resentful whites and his downplaying of the issue of racial justice were making that process more difficult. As Halberstam put it:

The young radicals [in Kennedy’s own camp] for their part thought that the cutback on race (“I was the chief law enforcement [officer] of this country…”) was a mistake, morally and politically…. Cutting back was harmful among the liberals with whom he was already in serious trouble. His image was blurred. If national reporters and television reflected his edginess on race, as they were bound to and as they did, then it would hurt him once more there. It would re-create the image of the too political Bobby, and this finally would backfire. (What is the difference between you and Barry Goldwater on some of these programs in the ghetto—about plans to involve the private sector more in the cities—he was once asked. “The difference is that I mean it,” he answered.)

Germond, despite his sympathy for Kennedy, says that the same grumbling had occurred in the press as early as the Indiana race. In an Indianapolis bar, Kennedy joined reporters and asked what they were writing. “‘That you sounded like Nixon,’ somebody said. ‘That you caved in to the conservatives,’ somebody else said.”’7 Steel quotes Ronald Reagan, governor of California at the time, as musing, “Kennedy was talking more and more like me.”

The straddling act became more obvious in the California primary, which Kennedy had to win after his loss to McCarthy in Oregon (the first election any Kennedy had ever lost anywhere, and a deep blow to the Kennedy charisma). Finally debating McCarthy, after spending months dodging him, Kennedy hauled in the name of the putatively most reactionary district in California, Orange County, in order to attack McCarthy’s plea to break up ghettos:

I am all in favor of moving people out of the ghettos, but we have 14 million Negroes here in the ghetto at the present time. We have here in the State of California a million Mexican-Americans whose poverty is even greater than any of the black people’s. I mean, when you say you are going to take 10,000 black people and move them into Orange County…

McCarthy had not said that, as Steel points out, and for Kennedy to suggest that he had was, as Witcover notes, “precisely the sort of thing that had won Kennedy his image for ruthlessness.”8 Schlesinger admitted that “this sounded, and was, demagogic,” before trying to excuse the demagogy. Other books (Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman’s, Halberstam’s) bury the remark in a merciful oblivion—something that would not have been possible if Kennedy had lived long after making it.

That Kennedy’s lunge toward the right was not a momentary lapse is made clear by his plans for the period after California’s primary. Schlesinger points out that he told Richard Goodwin that he could not concentrate on McCarthy while “Humphrey’s running around the country picking up delegates.” His most important task was to “chase Hubert’s ass all over the country” by appealing to the old Democrats. Therefore he would ask McCarthy to withdraw from the race, so he (Kennedy) could unite the antiwar vote! This had the same chance of succeeding with the proud and stubborn McCarthy as had Kennedy’s request, before announcing his own candidacy, that the two men coordinate their campaigns against the war. McCarthy had already sent a message to Kennedy, through Goodwin, that their only collaboration would be for McCarthy to serve one term as president and then to give Kennedy his turn. That Kennedy still thought McCarthy would defer to his effort to knock off Humphrey was a measure of the desperation he was feeling as he faced what he conceived to be the real problem—getting the old-line Democrats on his side.

The idea that Kennedy could, at the same time he was angling for the kids’ vote and the Daley endorsement, pick up Wallace voters as well is simply absurd. He had not even won the Wallace vote in Indiana, where Wallace was not competing on the Democratic ticket. If he had made it to the general election, Wallace himself would have faced him, with all his skill at exacerbating the latent enmity of the South and its sympathizers for Bobby. That was the year in which the resentment and grievance vote gave a combined 56 percent majority to the tickets of Nixon-Agnew and Wallace-LeMay. The image of Kennedy that Wallace and others could conjure up is the one some people thought they saw in the primaries before he was killed. Steel quotes Theodore White’s description:

Carried away by his own emotions and their echo among the volatile, cheering young, he could not quite grasp how television outlined his figure on the forty-second and one-minute snatches of evening news where the larger, national, ma-ture audience saw him: hysterical, high-pitched, hair blowing in the wind, almost demoniac, frightening. In short, the ruthless, vindictive Bobby Kennedy again, action without thought, position without plan.9

Steel does not quote, though he might have, Witcover making the same point, that Kennedy’s “emotionalism—and the intentional playing on it, to the edge of demagoguery—could also produce a negative counterreaction among those who, in times of national distress, longed for more placid times.”

Strident images of that sort were instantly expunged by tears when Kennedy was killed on June 4. It was not his campaign itself, but the end of it, that created the image of the healer, the reconciler who might have been. McCarthy’s followers, who had expressed their bitterness at Kennedy, felt guilty or ashamed, and changed their tune. The same thing had happened after JFK’s assassination. Though John Kennedy won the 1960 election by a razor-thin and debatable margin, decisive majorities of Americans claimed they had voted for him when they looked back after his death.

Steel is at his best when he describes the way Robert Kennedy shared the confusion, disorientation, doubts, and fears of the nation in the aftermath of his brother’s death.

He clung to Jack’s old garments as though they would somehow keep him afloat. Carrying Jack’s overcoat with him on trips, he would curiously often leave it behind, as though trying to unburden himself, and then send an aide to retrieve it. In his sorrow he was like the Hindu wife who throws herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. It was as though his own life had been deprived of meaning; or that it had taken on a meaning that he could not bear to contemplate.

Steel suspects that Robert felt an obscure guilt that explains his unwillingness to pursue any rumors of a conspiracy behind the assassination. Might they turn up some involvement of the Mafia, or the CIA, or Castro, that tracked back to Robert’s own murky actions involving the underworld or his Operation Mongoose against Castro? Steel neglects another event that, occurring just three weeks before JFK’s own death, may well have troubled RFK—namely, the green light the Kennedy administration had given to the generals in South Vietnam who overthrew and assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. In tapes from the Kennedy library well analyzed by Ken Hughes in his recent article in The Boston Globe Magazine, Robert had predicted trouble if the Catholic Ngo brothers were overthrown: “I would think that we’re just going down the road to disaster.”10 An important book which Steel does not cite, James Hilty’s Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector, has this to say of the Saigon murders: “The parallels between the Kennedys and the Ngo brothers, after all, could hardly have escaped him [RFK]. Americans at the Saigon embassy even called Diem’s brother ‘Bobby.”’11

Any sense of guilt Robert Kennedy felt was displaced onto his brother’s successor, whom he treated as a usurper. He called his dead brother “our president,” as opposed to the man “they” were treating as president. Six months after the assassination, Steel writes, he told an interviewer: “Our president was a gentleman and a human being…. This man is not…. He’s mean, bitter, vicious—an animal in many ways.” Kennedy resented it when his brother’s people (e.g., Sargent Shriver) supported Johnson. He told the faithful, “We must all stay in touch and not let them pick us off one by one.” On the day of Johnson’s inauguration after election at the top of the ticket, Kennedy made two well-photographed visits to his brother’s grave, celebrating the true president.

When Johnson, helped by the sympathies roused by JFK’s death, went far beyond what his predecessor could have enacted in the way of civil rights bills, RFK stepped up his own appeals to blacks and minorities, as if saying that Johnson was not going far enough, that his brother would have been the true leader in the ghettos. Steel finds this more opportunistic than others have, saying Kennedy had to get support wherever he could find it out beyond the sweeping Johnson embrace: “RFK’s program, insofar as it could be called that, was not so much conservative or radical as destined to pick up support where he could.” It is true that Kennedy went from half-hearted and opportunistic support of civil rights during his brother’s time to wholehearted and opportunistic support afterward—but that is not the same as saying that it was wholehearted because it was opportunistic.

That there is a better way to read the evidence is suggested by earlier parts of Steel’s book. He points out that Bobby, who was suspected of being a momma’s boy for his scruples and religiosity, had become tough as a way of pleasing and appeasing the masculine fancies of his father and brother. Released from that family task, he had new allies to please, new demons to appease. The outsider feelings that had made him ruthless now made him empathetic to the poor and the outcast. The man who had collaborated with J. Edgar Hoover in spying on Dr. King had done it to protect his brother from Hoover’s retaliatory powers. Now he was free to let his sympathies go to Hoover’s target. His eloquence on the evening of King’s assassination was, among other things, a way of placating his own ghosts. There was less opportunism than compulsion in his quest to join a different brotherhood.

Schlesinger, in his 1979 book Robert Kennedy and His Times, quotes a perceptive passage by the late Andrew Kopkind describing the post-assassination RFK:

Kennedy is on to something. He hovers over it like a pig in the Perigord sniffing a truffle. It’s just below the surface; he can’t quite see it; he doesn’t know its size or shape or worth or even what it’s called. He only knows it’s there, and he is going to get it. Where does he look? Among the grape-pickers on strike in central California, the Cloth Market Square in Cracow, on the Ole Miss campus, in a Senate hearing room. And always with the same single-minded, almost frightening intensity. Perhaps the young know what it is: Kennedy spends an inordinate amount of time at schools and colleges talking with them. Maybe the poor know; he studies the condition of the urban ghettos. Is it in Latin America? He’ll go and see. Is it in South Africa? Get him a visa.

These were the days when Kennedy expressed a fellow feeling for Che Guevara, and speculated that he might have been a revolutionary himself if he had not been born rich. He was seeing the privilege of birth as an imprisonment. He was trying to break free. He courted danger, climbing mountains, shooting rapids. What he was looking for was his true self, so long repressed, so totally held in the service of others. Steel argues that he was trying to become JFK, imitating his mannerisms, speaking of him obsessively. But it went deeper than that. What he was flexing was that part of him that had partially resisted his brother, maybe even resented him, even as he was serving him.

That shows up in Kennedy’s changing attitudes toward Vietnam. Steel rightly points out that RFK supported the war for a long time after the assassination. The idea that JFK had decided to withdraw from Vietnam is one of the more far-fetched of Oliver Stone’s fantasies. Johnson deferred to the same set of advisers JFK was relying on at the end of his life.12 Six months after his brother’s death, RFK was still denying that there had been any thought of pulling out short of victory. He said, “The President [the real president] was convinced that we had to stay in there.”

Steel says that Kennedy had to wait until the war was perceived as Johnson’s to come out against it. But Kennedy was listening to different voices throughout this period, the ones he sought out in the quest Kopkind described. And the tapes recently published by Ken Hughes show that he had early misgivings, moral and practical, about the highhanded way America was acting in Vietnam when it tried to take power from Diem and give it to unknown forces. “I may be in the minority [but] I just don’t see that this makes any sense, on the face of it,” he said. “We’re putting the whole future of the country—and, really, Southeast Asia—in the hands of somebody we don’t know well.” The man who had obsessively tried to bring down Fidel Castro was now sympathizing with Fidel’s ally, Che Guevara; and the man who glorified American counterinsurgents was now looking at Vietnam through the eyes of a guerrilla on the other side.

Steel is right when he argues that there was a kind of mutual therapy involved in Kennedy’s relationship with his followers. Each was using the other to heal the wounds opened by JFK’s assassination. But Steel goes too far when he implies that RFK was seeking always for his lost brother, for a way to keep him alive, to vindicate his legacy. He was actually looking for a different Kennedy, the one in his own skin, whoever that might turn out to be. James Hilty, in Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector, argues convincingly that RFK always had a more capacious and exploring self than JFK. The “ruthless Bobby” did not manipulate people as coolly and remotely as his brother; he had qualms and aspirations beyond the hedonistic, the detached, the calculating. Less charming than his brother, he was more complex, more interesting, more estimable.13 By the end he was coming within sight of the Kennedy he was looking for; but he died in mid-quest. Would he have found him eventually?

Does a pig find the truffle?

  1. 1

    Jack W. Germond, Fat Man in a Middle Seat (Random House, 1999), p. 69.

  2. 2

    Jules Witcover, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy (Putnam, 1969), p. 180.

  3. 3

    David Halberstam, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (Random House, 1968), p. 122.

  4. 4

    Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Ballantine, 1979), p. 891.

  5. 5

    William vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman, On His Own: Robert F. Kennedy, 1964-1968 (Doubleday, 1970), pp. 348-349.

  6. 6

    Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman, On His Own, p. 373.

  7. 7

    Germond, Fat Man in a Middle Seat, p. 81.

  8. 8

    Witcover, 85 Days, p. 243. Steel, referring to this page of Witcover’s book, says it contains “political thuggery” as the author’s comment on Kennedy’s debate remark, but it does not.

  9. 9

    Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1968 (Atheneum, 1969), p. 195.

  10. 10

    Ken Hughes, “JFK and the Fall of Diem,” The Boston Globe Magazine, October 24, 1999.

  11. 11

    James W. Hilty, Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (Temple University Press, 1997), p. 471.

  12. 12

    Steel quotes Johnson’s angry outburst at an RFK reference to “your State Department”: “It’s not my State Department. It’s your State Department, goddam it!” (p. 136).

  13. 13

    See Hilty, Robert Kennedy, pp. 492-498.

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