Robert Kennedy
Robert Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

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.

Most perplexing, because most tantalizing, has been his position on the war in Vietnam. In February, 1966, he proposed acceptance of the National Liberation Front’s role in any Vietnamese settlement, then backed away when questioned sharply, and remained silent (or contrite?) for a year. His second annual Vietnam address, presented to an expectant Senate this year on March 2, criticized the President for a reluctance to negotiate with Hanoi, and included a moving account of the horrors of war. It was a fine attempt to legitimize the moral issues, which hard-nosed politicians would like to ignore. Kennedy’s staff claims the second speech went further against official policy than did the first, but to many listeners it seemed somewhat less of a break. In any case, it came at least two weeks too late to have any specific effect on negotiations for de-escalation. Kennedy knows now that he waited too long; he confided recently that the Administration fooled him into thinking that real progress toward peace talks were being made, and that a critical speech might ruin their chances of success.

What is maddening is that Kennedy always appears to know better. Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden emerged from a lengthy interview (which Kennedy requested) believing that he understood the basic error of the Administration’s policy: that the refusal to entertain the possibility of a unified, Communist-controlled Vietnam only prolonged the war. “We’re in the same ballpark,” Kennedy told the two visitors as they left his East River apartment. But that was not the way it came out on the floor of the Senate. Some weeks later, after General Westmoreland’s bullying visit to the mainland, Kennedy indicated to friends that he thought the war would soon get much worse, that there would be new escalation, and that the dangers were enormous. He thereupon made a few mildly critical comments about Administration policy in the course of an exchange among “doves” after the wideranging assault by Senator George McGovern. But even then Kennedy could not see himself risking his place inside the system to lead the attack—the only attack which might mobilize effective opposition to the war in the foreseeable present.

IT SHOULD HARDLY be surprising that Kennedy acts like a normal politician. There is nothing in his background, his performance, or his prospects which suggests that he behave otherwise. He may be impulsive and keen on the issues, but he sees them with the eyes of a traditional political operator. It is not necessary to suppose that he feeds every alternative into some Lou Harris poll or a computer to see which one will get him the most number of votes for some office in some future election. He goes out of his way to talk with poor sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, or attacks Sam Yorty in a Senate hearing, or supports legislative reapportionment, because he is genuinely concerned. Most of his advisers (outside his dovish office staff) warned him of the negative political consequences of this year’s Vietnam speech: Ted Sorensen, for one, was adamantly opposed. But Kennedy went ahead, because he did not like the war nor the way the President was conducting it. To Kennedy cultists, those qualities of spontaneity and honesty are absolute virtues, and even to critical observers there is something rare and refreshing in the way he swings around the issues. But it is all perfectly safe. His impulses never take him beyond the limits of accepted behavior. He would not join a peace march in Central Park nor withdraw his account from a bank supporting the South African economy nor make a TV spot for a peacenik candidate against a good Democrat. Nor will he fail to support the Johnson-Humphrey ticket for re-election in 1968. He can conceive of doing no less.

All that may be obvious to the politically sophisticated, but the Kennedy cult is based on the hope, if not the tenet, that the man can operate without as well as within the boundaries of the system, that he can lead a revolution of attrition against the dominant institutions of the society. The myth will die hard. It is based on the shaky assumptions of pluralism: that the structure of American life is open enough and democratic enough to allow for whatever reforms are necessary, if only a formula for gathering political power can be found.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a peripatetic theoretician in Kennedy’s Lyceum, appears to have arrived at such a formula. In an article in the April Progressive, he restates his argument that Americans have most of the things they need for the good life. What they want now is quality control. The new “qualitative” issues replace the old “quantitative” ones. Instead of “a job, a suit of clothing, three meals a day, a roof over one’s head, and a measure of security for old age,” people now are concerned with “civil rights, civil liberties, education, urban planning, the state of the arts and the beauty of the environment…and, in addition, foreign policy.” These issues, he concludes,

are no longer social and economic so much as they are cultural and moral. It is no longer the common man against the economic royalist or the worker against the boss so much as it is the rational against the indignant, the tolerant against the bigoted, the planner against the spoiler, the humanist against the materialist, the educated against the uneducated, the young against the old.

To deal with them, Schlesinger would weld a new coalition of urban innovators (Cavanaghs instead of Daleys), the unorganized (or Reuther-organized) poor, the newly diplomated middle class, the remaining progressive ethnic groups, the churches—“and the most vital group of all, the youth.” Discarded are the regressive elements of the old New Deal coalition—the satisfied labor unions, the grasping lower-middle class, and the backlashing minorities. To lead the new forces must be a leader “sufficiently free, cool, and brave, to relate to the young and recover their allegiance for American society.” Schlesinger need be no more specific.

Despite the echoes of Dylan and Marcuse, Fannie Lou Hamer and Erik Erikson in Kennedy’s speeches, Schlesinger’s formulation indicates the basis and the limits of the new Kennedy politics. It can all be seen in Kennedy’s project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In January, 1966, Kennedy presented a series of speeches on urban problems which included several policy suggestions for community development, but no specific plans for action. A few weeks later, he began to hear complaints from Negroes in Bedford-Stuyvesant about the lack of follow-up. Kennedy’s New York staffmen went to work seeing what might be done, and by the end of the year they had developed a “total program” for employment, education, community organization, social services, and economic growth such as Kennedy outlined in the second of his addresses.

A committee of influential businessmen—Thomas Watson of IBM, William Paley of CBS, financiers Douglas Dillon and André Meyer—was established as a development corporation. A local organization of the poor was set up to “govern” the project. City and state officials were asked to help, and proposals for federal aid (including financing from a Labor Department program which Kennedy pushed through Congress last year) were drawn. Before long, however, the poor people’s organization developed a malfunction. It was being controlled by the traditional manipulators in the community. The Kennedy men in New York had not known how to reach the underclass, but when they saw that the council was making no impact in the area, they abandoned it and established a new, poorer people’s organization as a rival. The Citizens’ Crusade Against Poverty, a liberal coalition of community action organizations set up by Walter Reuther, was called in to get the poor moving. The Astor fortune was requisitioned to build “superblocks” in the slum.

The Bedford-Stuyvesant project is almost too good a test of Kennedy’s ideas and the direction he intends to go. It is relatively small and self-contained. There is no strong existing governmental organization, nor local leadership with deep roots. The typical problems of urban slums are acute. Kennedy can marshal considerable political power in New York to effect change, and his staff is rather immodestly eager to assume executive functions to relieve the boredom of legislative life. Kennedy, too, is restless under the restrictions of the senatorial role. The operation in Brooklyn amounts to a kind of mini-Administration, until the real thing comes along.

BUT IT IS far too early to tell whether Kennedy’s plan for Bedford-Stuyvesant will develop the new forms of community government, and achieve the physical and social rehabilitation its backers envisage. The basic scheme suggests that something less than radical reconstruction will result. The Kennedy assumption is the Schlesinger thesis: that the highly motivated poor can work with the corporate elite and the planners with the politicians to produce a “qualitatively” Greater Society. It does not, however, seem likely. The cultural and moral issues are still inextricably bound up with the social and economic ones. Air pollution may be an aspect of the quality of life, but all the technological adjustment in the world will not reduce the smog one particle if economic pressure cannot be applied against the polluting industries. Urban planning is still a political problem; there is no end to the plans, and no end to the political obstacles in the way of their execution either. Banks and factories for the slums might be nice, but something much more profound—“more social and economic” in the sense that Schlesinger’s formula rejects—has to be done to bring the poor out of the culture of poverty. Kennedy’s men in Brooklyn will find that the poor and the middle class do not share a universe of interests. In trying to improve education, for example, they will see that new buildings and bright teachers and modern curricula make little difference in learning among the poor. As the parents of East Harlem’s I.S. 201 have been trying to say for a year now, changes in educational quality will not come until the community gains new measures of power—money, and status, and social effect. That process comes through political struggle; it will not be freely given by businessmen or social workers, much less by senators or mayors or directors of human resources. For the act of taking power is the condition of being powerful.

At best, the Bedford-Stuyvesant plan seems to be an attempt to apply the principles of American development aid overseas to an “underdeveloped” community at home. The idea of local counter-insurgency obviously appeals to Kennedy. Riot control is the first responsibility of the modern Prince. But there is no assurance that the local effort will have any more success than the foreign one has had. AID programs have largely failed because of an inability to arrange a redistribution of power in the “target” countries. US money and technical assistance is monopolized by the elites, who use it to tighten their grip on the underclasses. The same has been true of the antipoverty program in this country; city machines and welfare bureaucracies have been the major beneficiaries of the money and the effort expended so far.

STILL, IT IS very difficult to criticize the Kennedy project in Brooklyn, as it is to bad-mouth his efforts and exercises in other fields. There is precious little in the country that is any better. Only a handful of senators criticize the war, few even talk about Latin America, and in any event Kennedy is so much brighter and more appealing personally than any of them. But it may be a serious mistake to consider what Kennedy is doing—in Bedford-Stuyvesant as elsewhere—a healthy “first step” toward significant change. For Kennedy would impose his own kind of elitist reform before any independent forms of social reconstruction could begin.

To realign US foreign policy, there must be basic changes in the operation of the corporatist system, so that its decision-makers no longer perceive their interests to lie in destroying the independence of other countries. Along with those changes, there would have to be drastic revisions in military strategy and a dismantling of the defense establishment. No president elected within the normal political procedures by the constituencies that now exist could achieve that. But Kennedy would tend to strengthen, not weaken, the structure of imperialism: by encouraging American overseas corporations to behave liberally, to allow foreign governments to exert superficial control over corporate operations, and to keep cool when political currents seem to threaten their interests. At the same time, Kennedy would encourage the development of a large counter-insurgency capability (as begun by his brother) to put down the really serious threats.

At home, Kennedy would be drawn to analogous illusions of reform. Larger governmental units might be decentralized to bring policy-making “closer to the people,” while the old power relationships are maintained. It would always be necessary to control independent political constituencies, whether they are Freedom Democrats in the South or Liberation Parties in the ghettoes or unaffiliated labor insurgencies on the farms. The job of political leaders is to force such groups into coalitions which they already manipulate: the national Democratic Party, the city machines, the big labor unions.

A Kennedy Administration would try to implement the Schlesinger formula on a grand scale. There is a strong suggestion in that thesis that there is a “crisis” in the order akin to the failure of American institutions in the years before the New Deal, which Schlesinger has chronicled so brilliantly. The New Deal saved the order then by appearing to reform it. If things are really falling apart now, if the war and the Negro revolt and the alienation of the suburban middle class and the loss of “allegiance” of the young is as serious as Schlesinger suspects, Kennedy may indeed be the only leader able to maintain the order, however readjusted it may have to be internally. Certainly the Bedford-Stuyvesant coalition—corporation heads, liberal intellectuals, welfare politicians, progressive unionists, militant Negroes, and eager young volunteers—offers the best hope to keep the center holding. But it is absurd to suppose that the social finagling will produce essential change. The Schlesinger doctrine invests the “free, cool, and brave” leader with powers he cannot logically have. The kind of top-down reforms he is capable of will result only in the superficial readjustments that can buy off the cutting edge of resistance. To do more requires the kind of dislocation and reconstruction of underlying relationships which can only come from a new politics, based on movement and conflict, not coalition and consensus. It is not Kennedy’s fault that he can do no other; it is his situation.

For those who cannot believe in the essential efficacy of “cultural and moral” (or technical and legislative) solutions to basic social and economic problems, the next few years will present a series of painful choices. The Kennedy camp will gather much of the brightest, most energetic, most effective talent in the country. Some may join up in full agreement with the prospects as they now appear; others may try, as Robert Scheer recommended in a recent Ramparts profile of Kennedy, to “up the ante,” to make Kennedy’s reforms a little more broad than they might otherwise be. Only a few will remain outside. Only a handful will continue to build independent constituencies—of intellectuals, of the poor, of the Negro underclass. It is far from clear what the outsiders will accomplish. But in the end Kennedy will not remake the society, either by his personality or with his programs, and we will have need again of a saving remnant.

This Issue

June 1, 1967