Robert Kennedy died 50 years ago tomorrow. Shortly thereafter, the journalist Jack Newfield wrote:
He was killed reaching out for the hand of a $75 a week Mexican dishwasher, and his assassin was captured by two Negro athletes. When he died he was mourned most by America’s dispossessed. His real funeral service was in the eyes of the wounded black faces that lined the poor side of the tracks, as his twenty–one–car funeral train slowly moved from New York to Washington.
When the presidential candidate known as “Bobby” died, I was 21. Like millions of others in the terrible year of 1968, I felt the loss of a man who seemed like our last, best hope. But I never knew him. So I build this remembrance on those who did, hoping to convey what made him so remarkable.
After interviewing Kennedy, the journalist Murray Kempton said: “God, he’s not a politician! He’s a character in a novel!”
He radiated complications and contradictions. Critics called him ruthless; impatience made him curt. “He never asks for things,” Adlai Stevenson complained. “He demands them.”
As a Senate investigator and as his brother’s attorney general, he went after the crooked Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa without surcease. He once left work at 1 a.m., only to notice the light was still burning in Hoffa’s office at Teamsters headquarters. He turned around and went back to work.
As a boss, he was short on praise ― he assumed people would do their job. But after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered amid the 1968 campaign, his young speechwriter Jeff Greenfield stayed up for hours crafting a speech for Kennedy decrying violence in America. Finding Greenfield sprawled on his bed in exhaustion, the senator pulled the covers over him. “You’re not so ruthless,” Greenfield murmured. “Shh,” Bobby replied. “Don’t tell anyone.”
His brother’s 1963 assassination wounded him indelibly. His aide Michael Novak said: “I always felt that Bobby had an aura of fatalism around him after his brother’s death. He would do his best… and the rest would be left in the hands of God. There was a sadness in his eyes. And one wanted to help him and protect him. He seemed the most vulnerable of the Kennedys.”
His college classmate Anthony Lewis wrote of him: “Most people acquire certainties as they grow older. He lost his.”
What emerged was empathy and compassion. A friend remarked: “I think Bobby knows precisely what it feels like to be a very old woman.” Civil rights leader Charles Evers described showing Kennedy the poverty and hunger of blacks in rural Mississippi: ”[W] went into some homes. He sat there on the side of the bed in an old broken–down building. Tears were running down his cheeks. I knew he cared. I can just see him sitting there and crying. The man had no vanity.”
In April’s American Prospect, his close aide Peter Edelman recalls: “People could see how much he loved children. I will never forget the child on a dirt floor by himself when we were in rural Mississippi… The child seemed not to be able to stand up. My wife–to–be [Marian Wright] and I were in the house, but RFK did not know that. He kneeled down for perhaps ten minutes to seek a response from the baby.”
Newfield told of going to a migrant workers’ camp where kids were living in chicken coops and burnt–out cars: “We were stopped at the gate by a man with a gun who said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ Robert Kennedy walked right past the man and picked up a five-year-old child who was obviously malnourished; she was also wearing glasses. Kennedy hugged the child and said, ‘I just want you to know that my little girl wears glasses too, and I love her very, very much.’ The man was pointing the gun at us the whole time, and Kennedy made believe the gun didn’t exist.”
These experiences drove his campaign for president. “People saw Kennedy as tough and deeply caring at the same time,” Edelman writes.
″[H]e told people everywhere… that we had to end the war in Vietnam, end the near starvation he’d seen in rural black Mississippi, and more broadly end the poverty that should not exist in America. He talked about things that were not their priority, but they believed in his sincerity and respected his courage.”
Says Greenfield, “One of his themes was: get our foot off the other guy’s neck.”
Repeatedly, Kennedy appealed for an America which transcended selfishness and materialism. “The gross national product,” he said, “does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. 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 allows neither for the justice in our courts, nor for the justice of our dealings with each other. [It] measures neither our wit nor our courage, nor wisdom nor learning, neither our compassion or devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile; it can tell us everything about America ― except whether we are proud to be Americans.”
If this spirit meant challenging the comfortable, he did. Kennedy would often ask white college students: “You’re all for student draft deferments, right?” When they answered yes, he retorted “I’m against it” ― then pointed out that blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and working-class kids were the ones being shipped to Vietnam.
Asked by medical students in Indiana where he’d get the money for programs to relieve poverty, he answered, “From you.” Sharply he added, “Let me say something about the tone of these questions. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces… I don’t see many people coming here from slums, or off the Indian reservations.… It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the federal government. But it’s our responsibility, too. It’s our society, too, not just our government, that spends twice as much on pets as on the poverty program.”
But Kennedy leavened his passion with irony and wit. During his presidential campaign, a small plane packed with aides and reporters was bouncing around in an awful storm. Everyone was worried. Then Bobby got up and announced: “I just want to say, in all modesty, that if we don’t make it your names are going to be in very small type.” Amid much laughter, the tension broke.
Campaigning in Nebraska, he encountered Republicans carrying signs saying “Nixon’s the one.” “The one what?” Bobby asked innocently.
He was speaking in rural California when a gust of wind blew his notes away. “Oh, well,” he said, “there goes my farm program.”
The beginning of the 1968 campaign captured all his contradictions. He got in late ― he initially stayed on the sidelines, placing conventional political calculations above his desire to run. But when he did run, helping drive President Lyndon Johnson from the race, his campaign was fueled by an uncompromising call for racial and social justice. He lost the primary in Oregon, only to arouse an impassioned, almost desperate support among the multiracial populace of California.
Risking his brother’s fate, he rode in a convertible through the streets of Los Angeles. Newfield described the scene:
“A sea of surging faces ― black, brown, white ― engulfed his open car.... Thousands lined the sidewalks, and other hundreds trotted alongside the car, some trying to climb in and ride with candidate. Every few blocks Kennedy would stop, ask the throngs to give them their hands and their votes on June 4 ... then push on, his suit coat off, his tie hanging loose.... By the time he reached the Beverly Hills Hotel, his shirttail was hanging out... but his spirit was restored.”
On June 4, with overwhelming support from blacks and Hispanics, Kennedy won California decisively. “Bob,” the playwright Bud Schulberg told him, “you’re the only white man in the country they trust.”
An hour later, he was shot. Lying in a pool of blood, he asked: “Is everyone all right?”
We weren’t all right ― then, or now. The wounds and divisions Robert Kennedy hoped to heal are with us still. In 1978, Tony Lewis reminisced: “He had a capacity to reach out to disparate groups in our society: black and white, young and old, middle-class and poor, blue-collar workers and intellectuals. There is no political figure now, and none on the horizon, with whom so many Americans can identify.”
True enough. But Robert Kennedy called on each of us to do our best. “People ask me whether there is a Robert Kennedy of today,” Peter Edelman writes: “I don’t know, but I do know this: We can’t wait for a Savior. We have to get to work. It is up to us.”
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.