Robert Kennedy moved voters with talk of social justice.
The fateful year of 1968 was one of passionate national division over issues of war, civil rights, social justice, and an increasing cultural permissiveness. Even four decades later, those searing divisions remain as strong and seemingly insurmountable as ever. As historian Thurston Clarke makes clear in The Last Campaign, a beautifully written and emotionally powerful examination of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy spoke about war and poverty directly from his heart, becoming what Clarke calls a “leader who could heal and unify a wounded nation.”
"Whatever Kennedy was,” writes Clarke, “he was not a compromiser searching for a middle road.” Unlike his assassinated brother, John, Robert didn’t get by on his cool political judgment and slow-burning charisma. Kennedy seemed to open himself up fully to the suffering of the poor, from African-Americans living in shacks in Mississippi to unemployed, impoverished native Americans on reservations in South Dakota and this was the key to his political life.
“His brother’s assassination and his own experiences among the poor had deepened his moral imagination so that by 1968 he could imagine himself being a Nebraskan farmer, a migrant farmworker, or anyone who was hurting,” writes Clarke, and these struggling people didn’t just vote for RFK, they seemed to worship him.
Of course, Kennedy’s political staff tried to get him to moderate his more radical stances, encouraging him to curry favor with affluent constituencies, but Kennedy seemed at times almost determined to do the opposite.