Posts tagged Robert F. Kennedy
Posts tagged Robert F. Kennedy
By Jeff Greenfield
He has been gone longer than he was alive. When he was killed 45 years ago on June 6, just after winning the California presidential primary, Robert Kennedy was 42 years old.
Because I worked on that campaign, I’ve been asked the same questions over and over: Could he have been nominated? Could he have been elected? Could he have made a real difference had he won?
After four decades of brushing the questions aside—“Who knows?”—I tried to answer them in a detailed narrative. If you want one version of how Kennedy might have won in Chicago, how he might have beaten Nixon and what he might have tried to do, you can find it in my “what-if?” book, “Then Everything Changed.”
Of course, it’s just as possible to imagine Kennedy losing the nomination—Hubert Humphrey had most of the big nonprimary states—or losing to Nixon in November. (Maybe in a decade or so,Robert Caro will tell us what LBJ would have tried to do to Bobby.)
For me, the real loss does not lie in the realm of speculation. We know what we lost: The voice and vision of a still-young man with an extraordinary—perhaps unique—understanding of the possibilities and limits of public action.
By the time he ran for president, Kennedy had spent almost three years at the very center of power, as attorney general and (much more important) as President John F. Kennedy’s closest confidant. He had learned lessons that few aspirants to the White House ever get to learn: the way “experts” may be ignorant; the way certainties offered to a president may be dead wrong; and the way untested assumptions can lead to disaster.
Some of these lessons came at the cost of humility. John and Robert Kennedy brought no small measure of arrogance to the presidency. The efforts to subvert Castro’s regime in Cuba (possibly including assassination), the embrace of counter-insurgency in Vietnam and the failure to understand how to deal with Congress cost the Kennedy administration heavily.
The crucial point here is that Robert Kennedy had learned from these mistakes. (One of his favorite quotes, from Aeschylus, says, “God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride.”) At the point when most powerful people are setting out to write their memoirs, he found himself suddenly, violently thrown from power with the death of his brother—which meant that he found himself outside the corridors of power, with full knowledge of what went on inside. It meant, for instance, that he knew that passing a bill and spending money did not necessarily make things better. It meant he understood how structural, institutional weaknesses could undermine good intentions. (My first day on his Senate staff, I went to a hearing on the then-new federal aid to education law. “What is happening with the money?” he wanted to know. Why is it then, he asked, “whenever I go into a ghetto, the two things people hate most are the public welfare system and the public education system?”)
He was, in other words, a public figure challenging orthodox liberalism at the very moment of its postwar peak and raising radical questions about what we were doing for the least of us. Decades before Newt Gingrich suggested that school kids could work (as janitors, of course, since Gingrich was pandering to a very conservative base), Kennedy was suggesting that high school kids might be let out of school a few hours a week to work: to earn money, learn a trade, maybe find an appetite for a profession. That’s why in my alternate history, I imagined him in a major fight with the teachers’ unions.
That’s what we lost: Not necessarily a president, but a 42-year-old man who should have decades more to use what he had learned in helping shape the public policy of his time.
Young Bobby Kennedy
Fifty years ago, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy went for a walk — a 50-mile walk, to be exact — trudging through snow and slush from just outside Washington, D.C., all the way to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va.
He had no preparation, and no training. And in spite of temperatures well below freezing, he wore Oxford loafers on his feet.
In honor of the 50th anniversary, the Kennedy March is being reprised by a group of walking enthusiasts this weekend. Ray Smith, one of the walk’s organizers, says, “I think it’s our little way of trying to respect that legacy that the Kennedys left us.”
No Laughing Matter
The impetus for Kennedy’s strange and incredible feat was a challenge issued by his brother, John — then president of the United States. The Kennedys were notoriously athletic, and JFK in particular was concerned about the decline in American “vigor.”
The White House had discovered a 1908 executive order from another fitness fanatic — President Theodore Roosevelt — who had said that all Marines should be able to hike 50 miles in three days. President Kennedy agreed, and reissued the challenge to the Marines of his own time. Not to be outdone by his predecessor, the president asked that his Marines complete the 50 miles in just one day, joking that perhaps his staff should take on the challenge as well. For his brother Robert, though, it was no joke.
"Bobby told me just as I was leaving the office, ‘I’m going to see you tomorrow at 5 in the morning,’ " recalls James Symington, who was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant at the time. He laughs as he remembers Kennedy’s determination.
"I said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Bobby had no — [never] had any sense — that there was anything he couldn’t do," he says.
Keep On Walking
So Kennedy set out, along with four of his colleagues and his dog, Brumis — a Newfoundland weighing more than 100 pounds. Symington joined him, with Brumis jumping on him playfully, several times knocking him into the canal that they were walking along.”He wasn’t trying to kill me, but he damn near did,” Symington says, laughing.
After 25 miles, the group was ready to give up. But the press had caught wind of what Kennedy was doing, and a helicopter arrived soon after with photographers and journalists. So Kennedy set off again, this time accompanied by just two of his aides. The last of them left him around 35 miles in. Kennedy is rumored to have said to him, “You’re lucky your brother isn’t president of the United States.”
The so-called Kennedy March earned a lot of media attention and sparked a nationwide obsession with extreme walking and hiking. Ordinary people from around the country took on the challenge, and for a brief moment, Americans got serious about physical fitness.
The fad of the 50-mile walk was short-lived, however, and more grave concerns soon overtook the American people. The Kennedy March was replaced by the March on Washington, and the extraordinary feat performed by Robert F. Kennedy was quickly forgotten.
Young Bobby Kennedy in Palm Beach
A rare photo of a casual RFK and formally dressed JFK.
In the shadow of JFK…
The voter of tomorrow
Young, rich and handsome. The Kennedy princes.
Robert F Kennedy feared his children would be blinded by the mafia in an acid attack as revenge attack for investigating them, his widow has revealed.
Speaking out for the first time in 30 years, Ethel Kennedy said that her late husband was anxious they would be targeted as retaliation for his probe into mafia racketeering.
He saw a report about an American journalist who had been blinded in an acid attack by the mob and feared they would do the same to him.
The disclosure will add to conspiracy theories that the mafia may have been responsible for Kennedy’s death.
He was shot dead by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968 but speculation has raged that his crusade against the mob whilst serving as U.S. Attorney General may have be the root of his demise.
Mrs Kennedy, 83, said that her husband was scared after New York Post journalist Victor Riesel was blinded in an acid attack because of articles he had written about the mob.
‘We were told they were going to do the same with our children,’ she said.
Eldest daughter Kathleen, one of several siblings also interviewed in the film, recalls, “We couldn’t leave [school] with the other kids at the end of the day. We had to wait in the principal’s office to be picked up.’’
The documentary “Ethel,’’ which will play on HBO later this year, offers an extraordinary look into the private lives of a celebrated family that was at the center of some of the most famous events, triumphant and tragic, of the 20th century.
Asked about her husband’s 1968 assassination, Ethel says to her filmmaker daughter: “When we lost Daddy …” then stops, pain written on her face.
The family credits devout Roman Catholic faith with getting them through almost unendurable losses. Following the assassinations of her brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, and her husband, Ethel later lost two of her 11 children — one from a drug overdose and the other in a skiing accident.
“I wake up every morning and I think of Daddy [Robert] up there with Jack and [their older brother] Joe and my parents,’’ Ethel tells her daughter Rory, the youngest of her and Bobby Kennedy’s 11 children. A noted documentary filmmaker, Rory was born six months after her father was fatally shot after winning the California Democratic presidential primary.
“When the rest of the world was grieving,’’ her mother told the children their father was in a wonderful place, says Kathleen Kennedy. “Her faith is so strong — that’s caused her to get through everything [including] losing [sons] Michael and David.’’
As Ethel puts it: “Nobody gets a free ride. “You have your wits about you and dig in because it might not last.’’
When JFK appointed his brother as attorney general, his outspoken sister-in-law quickly emerged as one of the more colorful members of the extended Kennedy clan.
At one point, she was charged with horse theft — then a hanging offense in Virginia, where the family lived on a farm — after she rescued a neighbor’s maltreated horses.
Ethel was acquitted, but JFK asked her to tone down her famous parties — after press reports of a soiree where “all the members of his cabinet were thrown in the pool,’’ Ethel’s son Joseph Kennedy recalls.
After JFK was assassinated, Ethel says, “It was like Daddy lost both arms. It was just six months of blackness.’’
The documentary includes extensive home-movie footage of the family that’s never been shown publicly — including a striking image of a stricken Bobby Kennedy sitting in quiet contemplation on the side of a road.
According to Ethel, it was very difficult for her husband to seek office for the first time, successfully capturing a US Senate seat in New York in 1964.
“Whereas Jack was a born orator, nothing came naturally to Daddy, he had to struggle for everything,’’ she says.
Rory Kennedy says HBO, where she’s made films about AIDS and human rights issues for more than a decade, had long urged her to do a film about her family, but she resisted.
“It’s not in my comfort zone, and I assumed my mother wouldn’t want to do it,’’ Rory tells The Post. “But she sat down with me for five days and answered every question in the book.’’
One of her favorite stories is that when Robert was attorney general, Ethel would take the older kids to watch sharpshooters in the basement of the FBI building (the bureau fell under Robert Kennedy’s jurisdiction).
Kathleen says in the documentary, “One day she noticed a suggestion box. She took out her signature red pen, wrote, ‘Get a new director’ and put it in the box.’’
Rory Kennedy — who will be joined by her mother and about 25 other family members for the premiere in Park City, Utah — adds that longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, no fan of his nominal boss Robert Kennedy, quickly discovered what happened.
“By the time [Mom] got to my father’s office with all the kids, Daddy had already gotten the note from an irate Hoover,’’ she says.