THE AWFUL GRACE OF GOD
What We Lost When Bobby Kennedy Died
In honor of RFK’s 90th birthday, Jeff Greenfield, who worked as one of his speechwriters, explains why his legacy still looms so large.
He has been dead five years longer than he was alive. More than two-thirds of Americans were not yet born when he was killed, and if you were old enough to have voted for him the year he sought the Presidency, you’ve been on Medicare for at least three years. To remember that he was born ninety years ago is to understand just how long ago he died—and perhaps to remember as well that he was the third brother to die violently before his 50th birthday. When Press Secretary Frank Mankiewicz announced his death, standing atop an automobile outside a Los Angeles Hospital, he ended with a sentence that encompassed despair and rage: “He was 42 years old.”
So why does Robert Kennedy remain so powerful a loss for so many who remember him—and, remarkably, for so many who know him only in the images they see in retrospective histories. For his detractors—and they are legion—it is little more than the rose-colored distortions of sentimentalists or naïve liberals. For his acolytes, it is the loss of what would have been a Restoration, a return to the earlier years of the 1960s, before the War, before the racial and cultural divides that cleaved a country. (As one sign had it during a Kennedy rally in Indiana in 1968: “Camelot Again!”)
For me—who worked in his Senate office and on his presidential campaign as a junior speechwriter during the last year of his life—the explanation for the permanent sense of loss lies elsewhere. It is rooted the ideas and intentions he brought to the public arena in the last years of his life, shaped by experiences unique to any major public official. And whether he would have ever won the presidency, his early death deprived his country—and his party—of a voice they could ill afford to lose.
* * *
For thirty-seven years, the arc of Robert Kennedy’s life was unbroken: born into wealth and political power, he turned his energies to his older brother’s political fortunes, with a single-mindedness and intensity that almost made “ruthless” his middle name.
When John Kennedy won the presidency, he made his brother attorney general— the most sensitive of posts, one insisted on by his father —and after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, made him his unofficial senior adviser on virtually every significant issue. It was, in other words, a steady movement to the center of power—until his brother’s murder in 1963 instantly hurled him into exile, with the succession to the presidency of a man who felt for Bobby what Bobby felt for him: a deep abiding contempt.
This experience and his banishment had two key consequences. First, while it’s often said that “nothing can prepare you for the presidency,” being in effect the first assistant president comes very close. He had seen the gap between good intentions and good results; he had seen and heard airy promises from bureaucrats and generals that proved false. He had been in the room when racial violence broke out in Mississippi, when for 13 days the world was on the brink of nuclear war, when legislative and diplomatic strategies had to be shaped. No one, not his severest critic, ever suggested that this man who would have been the youngest-ever elected president lacked the experience for the job.
He had also seen the uses, and the abuses, of power. The assumption that the Vietnam insurgency could be defeated by a new theory of war; that Cuba’s Castro could be brought down by a program of subversion; that the legislative wisdom of their elders was not needed. All these factors combined to produce serious setbacks for President Kennedy. In his exile, he seemed to be taking a lesson from the Greek writers whose work he devoured (anyone who thinks this was a PR myth should have seen the copy of Aeschylus he passed over to me with every page filled with his indecipherable scrawls). One poem has this:
All arrogance with reap a harvest rich in tears;God calls man to a heavy reckoningFor overweening pride.
It raises the question: How many mistakes would a president avoid if he or she came into office having already learned the costs of arrogance.
Second: Even before his brother’s murder, even at his most judgmental and demanding, there was always in Robert Kennedy an identification with the outsider, the exile, the disenfranchised. In school, his best biographer, Evan Thomas, relates, he would rally to the defense of the bullied. As a Senate investigator into Teamster Union corruption he identified with the extorted small-business man, the threatened dissident. As attorney general, his interest in the roots of juvenile delinquency led him to organize the first focused look at poverty by any government agency. And his Senate investigations into hunger in the Deep South and Appalachia, and the conditions of migrant workers in California, were driven by a sense of personal outrage and identification all the more remarkable because it was embedded in a wealthy, privileged man.
That passion, that anger, unsettled many; it was one of the reasons why he was weaker in middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs than anywhere else. But it also explains not just his appeal among black and brown Americans, but his extraordinary showing in the small towns and rural communities of Nebraska and South Dakota, whose citizens themselves likely saw themselves as outsiders, people left behind by the culture.
There was one last aspect of Robert Kennedy’s shaping years: he was more acquainted with the darker corners of American life than any other public figure. His Senate work brought him face to face with organized crime (whose relationship with his father was at best questionable). His years as attorney general brought him in conflict with (and occasional compelled cooperation with) racist politicians, corrupt big-business leaders, dishonest politicians. And his involvement in the efforts to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro thrust him into the world of international intelligence, with freelance operators of highly uncertain character.
He came away from all this, I think, stripped of any sense of innocence. (On the last day of his life, he mused to speechwriter Dick Goodwin about the limits of how much basic change even a president could accomplish). Yet it’s hard to think of a potential president more likely to make the levers of power work than someone who had, in effect, held those levers before.
* * *
When Robert Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964, I was determined not to vote for him. He was a carpetbagger, using his family’s power to seize a nomination in a state where he was not even eligible to vote. Besides, he’d worked for Joe McCarthy. And he was the mean Kennedy, the moralist—not the secular Catholic his brother was, but the kind of Catholic who used to chase me home from school, accusing me of killing the son of God.
Then I saw a five-minute TV ad, where Kennedy was at Columbia University, answering questions from skeptical students. (This was the only kind of ad that worked for him; he was death on scripted pitches.)
Isn’t it true, one student asked, that you’re just using this as a stepping stone to the White House? Any other politician would have sternly denied such a motive.
Here’s what Bobby Kennedy said (I’m closely paraphrasing):
Let’s say you’re right. In 1968, President Johnson will be running again. Then I have to be re-elected in 1970. So if I decide to run in 1972, I have to have a good record for eight years to do that. So I don’t see how New York loses.
What followed after his election was that same kind of clear-eyed realism applied to some key issues. Remember: 1965 was a high-water mark of post-war liberalism—Johnson’s landslide and a Congress dominated by Democrats (and a lot of liberal Republicans) was passing Great Society legislation by the armful. And Kennedy was asking: Is this really the way to fight poverty? He attacked the welfare system, arguing that it robbed recipients of the pride that comes with work; that it demonstrated a cynical refusal of those in power to empower the poor with jobs and self-sufficiency. Instead of simply celebrating the great label Triumph of Federal Aid to Education, he would ask, “what’s happening with the money?”
On my first day on his Senate staff, I watched him grill the head of the Office of Education, wondering aloud why it was that “when I go into the ghetto, the two institutions people hate most are the public welfare system and the public education system.” And he would argue over and over that money was not the key, that schools were warehousing students, and why was it that young Negro children lost IQ points between the third and sixth grade. (In one speech, he suggested letting students leave school for a couple of hours a day to work, both to bring home money and to learn the skills and the psychic strength that comes from a job, coming as they did from neighborhoods where there was scant chance for meaningful work.)
Kennedy was always a skeptic about the sheer size of government, a critique that was gaining strength in the mid-to-late ’60s among the so-called “New Left.” He told Democrats in a speech that “the answer to or problems is not just another federal program, another department or administration another layer of bureaucracy in Washington. The real answer is in the full involvement of the private enterprise system—on the creation of jobs the building of housing, in training and education and health care.”
It was this kind of rhetoric that brought him criticism from traditional liberals, and gloating from Ronald Reagan, who said “he’s sounding more and more like me.”
But Ronald Reagan never launched the kind of ambitious program that Kennedy did in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1967, spending countless hours and days bringing resources from corporate executives and businesses into the neighborhood, launching programs to build small-scale housing and launch job-training programs. In the decades since, I have heard countless “reform conservatives” and Jack Kemp-types make similar speeches. I have yet to see one of them put his or her own energy on the line to turn those speeches into a reality in the impoverished neighborhoods of America.
In his critiques, there was also an unusual degree of candor—the same candor with which he talked to those Columbia students about his ambitions. When he broke with Johnson on the War in Vietnam, he said that if blame is to be assessed, he has a fair share coming, since he was part of the decisions that began the U.S. commitment there.
When he told college students why he opposed student draft deferments, and argued that they were given to the relatively privileged, he said, “When my son is old enough to go to college, he will get in, because his father is a wealthy and powerful man.” Even his humor was a way of mocking the platitudes. Why am I here in Fresno, he would ask a crowd. Well, once you’ve seen the pyramids and the Taj Mahal, what is left but to come to Fresno and see the mall. He seemed again and again in that last campaign to be working hard to free himself from the conventions of the process.
* * *
To ask “Could Bobby have won if he had lived?” is a question both futile and—to some of us—unavoidable. On the day of his death, despite his California victory, his de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton had said “We were losing altitude.” Except for New York—where Eugene McCarthy still posed a challenge—there were no more primaries. In those days, most of the big delegations were controlled by party leaders and elected officials, and many of them—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, virtually the entire South—were solidly in the camp of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Moreover, Lyndon Johnson was still the president, even after refusing to run again, and the only man who hated Kennedy more, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, was in possession of a file cabinet full of evidence about the reckless behavior of President Kennedy—a fact Hoover had made Bobby Kennedy highly aware of during JFK’s tenure. Indeed, the fear of what Hoover might reveal in the event of an RFK candidacy worried some of his closest aides. Longtime personal assistant Angie Novello said, “I wanted Bob in the White House so badly, but I didn’t want him to run in ’68 because I was afraid of what certain people in high places would do. I was afraid they would do something mean and unheard of.”)
How Kennedy might have overcome such obstacles, how he might have persuaded the party’s kingmakers that he would be stronger against Richard Nixon than Humphrey, how he might have fared against Nixon in November—all this is the subject of speculation. (For my version, you can check out the middle chapter of Then Everything Changed, a trio of alternate histories. For real life answers, particularly about how LBJ might have tried to thwart Bobby, I am waiting for Robert Caro’s next book.)
Nor have I an answer about how this culturally traditional figure would have dealt with issues soon to emerge, like abortion and gay rights. My guess is that as president, he would have been at odds with many in his own party on issues like welfare, and structural education reform (“Let kids out of school to work? When did become the party of child labor?”).
There is, however, a loss we can measure: It’s the loss of a tough-minded, passionate advocate not just for the dispossessed, but for policies that might actually do something to make those lives better. It’s the loss of a powerful, consequential political figure that might have put the Democratic Party on a very different path—that might have helped keep the fraying ties between elements of the coalition from breaking apart completely.
So if you think about Robert Kennedy at 90 and you’re evoking misty memories of a New Frontier or Camelot or some magical restoration, I think you’re missing the point. What we lost was a voice just at the time when we needed that voice the most.