Bobby Kennedy’s appeal rested on building bridges, not walls, writes Robert Philpot
This week saw Donald Trump’s 500th day in office.
The president marked this milestone by claiming that he had an ‘absolute right’ to pardon himself for any crime (not that he has committed any); lashing out once again at his attorney general for failing to shut down the probe into Kremlin meddling in the 2016 election; and attempting to revive the row he manufactured last September about ‘son of a bitch’ American football players kneeling during the national anthem in protest at the killing of young black men by the police.
It was snapshot of some – though by no means all – of Trump’s worst traits: his disregard for the constitution and the rule of law, bullying those he views as guilty disloyalty (not that Jeff Sessions is a man worthy of much sympathy), and cynical efforts to fan the flames of America’s culture wars.
There is, of course, some method in the president’s madness. As one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, suggested, the despot’s ‘object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind”.’
By a cruel irony, this week was also the 50th anniversary of Senator Robert Kennedy’s assassination. The senator was murdered shortly after declaring victory in that day’s California primary election; a crucial step on the road to becoming the Democratic party’s 1968 presidential candidate.
Kennedy was a complex figure. He never entirely shook the reputation for ruthlessness which stemmed from his early work for the notorious red-baiter Joe McCarthy and his role as his brother’s political enforcer. His spell as Jack Kennedy’s attorney general saw him go after the mob, corrupt labour unions and Fidel Castro, but also authorise wire taps on Martin Luther King.
Moreover, the outsized hopes which rested on the slain senator’s shoulders at the time of his death – that, once in the White House, he could heal America’s bitter racial divide, end the poverty which blighted its inner cities, and bring the bloody Vietnam war to an honourable close – would inevitably have led to later disappointments.
But for all that, Kennedy represented almost everything that Trump does not. As Larry Tye writes in his recent biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, ‘Kennedy was a builder of bridges – between islands of blacks, browns, and blue-collar whites; between terrified parents and estranged youths; and between the establishment he’d grown up in and the New Politics he heralded.’
That bridge-building was symbolised by his decision, against the advice of the police and the local mayor, to address a scheduled campaign event in a poor, predominantly black neighbourhood in inner-city Indianaopolis on the evening that King was assassinated. It was a journey few other white politicians would have dared to make. Kennedy gently broke the news of the civil rights leader’s death to the distraught and disbelieving crowd, telling them: ‘what we need in the United States is not hatred … violence and lawlessness, but love, wisdom, and compassion toward one another’. As rioting broke out in most other American cities that night, Indianaopolis remained calm.
The language of Kennedy’s speeches appealed to his fellow citizens’ best instincts and their better angels. He summoned the ‘unselfish spirit’, called for compassion, and urged the tearing down of ‘impossible barriers of hostility and mistrust’. He viewed politics and public service as a noble calling and tried to encourage voters to see it as such.
His deeply felt concern for the people of poverty-stricken Appalachia, for the children of the Delta area of Mississippi ‘with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation’, and for African American kids in ‘decaying schools and huddled in … filthy rooms – without heat – warding off the cold and warding off the rats’ was self-evident. He believed America must end the ‘disgrace of this other America’ and, when heckled by privileged white students about where he intended to get the money from to pay for all of this was brave enough to bluntly tell them: ‘you’.
Kennedy did not view deprivation simply in material terms (important though he recognised that to be). Instead, he argued for Americans to also confront ‘the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all’.
The measurement of America’s gross domestic product, he told an audience at the University of Kansas three months before his death, counted the manufacture of napalm and nuclear weaheads, guns and knives, and ‘armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities’. But, he continued, it excluded ‘the health of our children, the quality of their education [and] the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’.
Nor did Kennedy’s sympathies end at America’s shores. Perhaps his greatest, most iconic speech was that which he delivered to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town in June 1966. In it, he denounced the evil of apartheid, while attempting to counter the feeling of powerlessness many of its opponents then felt. ‘Human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice,’ he told the students. ‘He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.’
But there was nothing soft-headed about Kennedy. The epitome of the ‘tough liberal’, he attempted to transcend traditional ideological divides by calling for a ‘better liberalism’ that ‘knows the answer to all problems is not spending money’ and a ‘better conservatism’ that ‘recognises the urgent need to bring opportunity to all citizens’. His calls for ‘law and order’ and frequent references to the fact that he had been ‘the chief law enforcement officer of the United States’ were just as genuine and heartfelt as his abhorrence of poverty and discrimination. Indeed, he understood that the two were inextricably linked.
Thus, as Jack Newfield, a leftwing journalist who covered Kennedy’s campaign in 1968, later argued, ‘he felt the same empathy for white workingmen and women that he felt for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. He thought of cops, waitresses, construction workers and firefighters as his people’. Despite his own highly privileged upbringing, he had an instinctive feel, and respect for, the blue-collar Boston Irish values of hard work, self-reliance and love of country.
Kennedy’s faith that America could ‘do better’ – a constant theme of his campaign – extended to a belief that he should address his audiences as educated adults. He littered his speeches with references to Greek poets and philosophers. The words of the Irish playwright and author, George Bernard Shaw – ‘Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?’ – were a constant refrain (although, more prosaically, he also used the line as a signal to the press that he was winding up and they should head back to the bus).
Whether Kennedy could have met the dreams so many Americans invested in him is impossible to tell.
But his short life and the values and political principles he stood for also have resonance today, and not simply because of the stark contrast they provide to those of the current occupant of the Oval Office.
As Richard Dahlberg writes in a recent report for the Century Foundation, Kennedy’s ‘inclusive populism’ offers important lessons for the American centre-left as it grapples with the question of how to build a winning electoral coalition.
Despite the massive racial tensions which riled America in the 1960s, Kennedy’s primary campaign saw him win huge support among both black voters and the white working-class voters who would later bolt – some of them within months – to the Republican party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and, ultimately, Donald Trump.
In the end, concludes Dahlberg, Kennedy’s appeal rested on the fact that he was ‘able to communicate that he cared about both groups in a way that few politicians can today by respecting both their interests and their legitimate values … he was a liberal without the elitism and a populist without the racism’.
It was a winning, though tragically short-lived, combination.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot
Photo: by Warren K. Leffler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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