Posts tagged Robert F. Kennedy
Posts tagged Robert F. Kennedy
Portrait of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, seated in a chair and holding a legal document from the Department of Justice. The American flag and a Roman style mural are in the background (1962)
"Jack Kennedy was more the politician, saying things publicly that he privately scoffed at. Robert Kennedy was more himself. Jack gave the impression of decisive leadership, the man with all the answers. Robert seemed more hesitant, less sure he was right, more tentative, more questioning, and completely honest about it. Leadership he showed; but it had a different quality, an off-trail unorthodox quality, to some extent a quality of searching for answers to hard questions in company with his bewildered audience, trying to work things out with their help."
- Robert Kennedy: His Life, by Evan Thomas
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