RFK as orator and candidate
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.
As a presidential candidate, Kennedy appeared so fueled by burning moral fervor for peace in Vietnam and social justice at home that he would chastise his more affluent, suburban crowds for not doing enough to resolve the nation’s ills.
Campaigning in suburban Indiana, for example, Kennedy spoke in front of an entirely white group of small businessmen. He challenged them by speaking about child poverty in America and the government’s responsibility to eradicate it.
“It was reverse demagoguery,” wrote Tom Congdon Jr., who was there reporting on the event for the Saturday Evening Post. “He was telling them precisely the opposite of what they wanted to hear.”
Campaigning on university campuses, Kennedy again played the role of “reverse demagogue” by speaking out against student draft deferments, arguing that the young American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam were disproportionately poor, dark-skinned, and without access to expensive higher education.
Clarke describes Kennedy’s belief in equal responsibility and his insistence that all must take personal responsibility for the suffering of others. His philosophy, writes Clarke, was “that everyone has a duty to alleviate suffering and that no one can live a fully happy life while surrounded by the unaddressed misery of others.”
On April 4, immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (which would trigger inner city rioting across America), Kennedy addressed a largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis. He told them that King had just died and then said, “What we need in the United States is not division ... not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
Robert F. Kennedy built a political coalition that cut across racial lines. He won votes from both African-Americans and white “backlash voters” who “felt threatened by black political and economic gains,” according to Clarke. He won a string of primary victories in Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and California.
At the moment of his death, Kennedy seemed to be the inevitable Democratic nominee in 1968, and his appeal to voters who saw him as a leader capable of “healing the wounds” of Vietnam and the civil rights era could easily have made him president.
Of course, it wasn’t to be. Like his brother, RFK was felled by an assassin’s bullet. After his California primary victory speech on June 5, Kennedy left the Ambassador Hotel through the kitchen, where he was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan.
Thurston Clarke has built “The Last Campaign” on an incredible amount of research, both archival and through hundreds of interviews with those who knew Kennedy best. The result is a vivid, intimate, historical portrait of a candidate who knew how to speak to an electorate amid troubled times. Kennedy’s take-no-prisoners advocacy for social justice struck a chord with many voters. Clarke’s book will break your heart but it may also relieve your cynicism, reminding all of us that candidates need not pander to succeed.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.