Jack Newfield's memoir of Bobby Kennedy is an intensely personal look inside the man before he decided to run for president; Newfield started following Bobby as a journalist in the autumn of 1966, and then covered that campaign through June 5, 1968. Apparently Newfield started out disliking him, noting that he'd picketed the Kennedy administration in 1963 at the Justice Department over the treatment of blacks to date. At that time Newfield was protesting black oppression, and saw Bobby come out. When someone yelled, "we haven't seen too many Negroes coming out of there," Bobby's only response was that they did not hire by the color of the skin, only by their ability. Bobby was booed for this. Two years later, Newfield found himself following Bobby as a journalist reporter.
So Newfield fills this book with intimate moments showing what Bobby was really like. He was a human being, and certainly flawed. He was not only complex, but contradictory. Newfield claimed he was a man at war with himself, especially in these early years after his brother was killed. This book made me understand Bobby more, and identify with him as a human being.
This is also a book that, in reading it today, shows how little politics has changed since then. I'll share some of those comparisons here in this summary of a book I highly recommend; it sells pretty cheaply used at Amazon.
Bobby is portrayed as a passionate, sensitive introvert, not naturally inclined to the political process but drawn to the nobleness of it. He could be moody, and he daydreamed. According to Newfield (54), he was "a nature sensualist. Clouds and rain depressed him. Sun, wind and the sea elated him. Mountains, rapids and animals exhilarated him."
His belief about the nobleness of the political process can be summed up in his own words (55): "…but we can lessen the number of suffering children, and if you do not do this, then who will do this? I'd like to feel that I'd done something to lessen that suffering."
In today's world so many people think all politicians are only crooked, no longer working to lessen anyone's suffering. But we have to believe that desire is still there in the people who want to run our country, or all hope is gone. Are we nothing more than dollar signs walking around?
Newfield (56) called this time between 1965 and 1968 "the most concentrated and violent change in American life since the 1930s." This book demonstrates that change as a reflection of the Vietnam War, just as our politics evolving today continue to reflect Bush's invasion of Iraq and growing terrorism that has resulted.
What's interesting about the 1968 political campaign year is that Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) became one of the first to decide not to seek re-election, which happened previously in 1884 with Cleveland. In Johnson's time, television was to the people what the internet is today, certainly a mover and driver of more information than people ever had access to before. They were showing Vietnam battles on nightly news, and that was unprecedented. I think there were some World War II scenes shown in movie houses, but nothing like this before. It's really not surprising that there would be an outgrowth of war protests with those kinds of visions. "Television, and the media in general, are now more powerful in determining politics than heredity is," noted the author (57).
People get upset over the idea of a "Clinton" dynasty, as some were over a "Bush" dynasty, but that's nothing new in American politics—the Adams, the Roosevelts, and here potentially the Kennedys. If one is suited to the task, with experience and education, the last name shouldn't be factor.
One of the criticisms of Hillary Clinton has been that she changes her mind. But a trait of a good leader is the ability to reassess. Bobby Kennedy did so on Vietnam and in his Vietnam speeches between 1965 and 1968 he would often apologize for the role he and his brother played on getting them involved. George McGovern's break with Johnson in 1965 had a big impact on him (130). He later said that if McGovern had run in '68, he would not have. The author also quoted a columnist here who believed Bobby stayed quiet all through 1965 to avoid a fight with President Johnson. Later the author said he made his first aniti-war statement in 1965, but became more vocal in '66, when the Senate too had begun to turn against the war (134).
Immediately Bobby faced a backlash of criticism from many, including those who had been friends with John Kennedy. "The general impression was that Kennedy got the worst of the political exchange because of the subtleties of his own position, and the potency of the simplistic anti-Communist rhetoric of his opponents" (135). Sometimes the development of the strength of convictions takes time, and in-depth analysis of the mood and pitch of the country's people; a true leader can change with the times and the will of the people.
But the backlash meant that Bobby stopped talking about the war for the remainder of 1966 (136), even as his opinions grew. Newfield gives readers the impression that Bobby was not the natural politician that his brother had been. But he wanted to be president because there were so many people to help, and he didn't know how else to help. His passion made people begin to rally around him. He felt real.
He was back at it in 1967, and this time, he did not give up. Here's from his last speech in 1968: "Do we have that authority (to kill) tens and tens of thousands of people because we say we have a commitment to the South Vietnamese people? But have they been consulted—in Hue, in Ben Tre, in other towns that have been destroyed? Do we have that authority? ... What we have been doing is not the answer, it is not suitable, and it is immoral, and intolerable to continue it."
Bobby was afraid to run up against Johnson. They never got along and for a while, Johnson's politics were favorable; also, his brother had chosen him (though Bobby told him not to) (202). No love was lost between them during JFK's presidency; Bobby was often treated (and acted) like second-in-command. For these reasons he was late to declare himself an anti-war president, and was considered a coward for a while. Eugene McCarthy got in before him and gained a lot of support from the college crowd. Johnson at first—following the JFK assassination—received as high as 80% approval, and 69% of his bills in 1965 were passed, a record number (189).
Politics at this time revolved around poverty, racism, bureaucracy, foreign policies and war. How little things change, sometimes, no matter how hard we try. But in 1967 the revolution began, and it wasn't started by Bobby or the Beatles. It appears it started with the anti-draft movement (195), probably related to the news reports showing what went on in war. By early 1967 the Democrats were looking to replace LBJ. One movement was to draft Bobby, but he wasn't ready (19 . In June of that year, he was clearly in turmoil over his inability to challenge Johnson. At that time he used glowing praise for the president that he later regretted (203-204).
He finally began to travel the country in mid-January of 1968, making anti-war speeches, and his closest friends felt that meant he was running. He openly admitted to disliking McCarthy, calling him pompous, petty and venal. He couldn't endorse him. "Gene just isn't a nice person" (211-213).
Yet it was the Tet offensive beginning January 31, 1968 (234) that got Bobby into the race and not LBJ's decision not to run again, as I had thought. With McCarthy already running he was receiving a lot of support from the campuses and the Jewish communities. A number of Bobby's closest advisers jumped up to encourage him, but his brother Teddy remained uncertain (235).
Finally on March 16th he made his candidacy official : "I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies … I made it clear to Senator McCarthy … that my candidacy would not be in opposition to his, but in harmony … my desire is not to divide the strength of those forces seeking a change, but to increase it" (257).
He worked hard to gain the trust of the college crowd, who saw McCarthy as the man with courage. At first Bobby's audience was made of those who hated hippies and happy that Bobby was running against Johnson. He talked up the college revolution scene, saying that we need to attack life with all our youthful vigor (262-263).
By the end of March, "Kennedy Besieged … there was almost a riot at the airport, the crowds were out of control, and there as a brief fistfight between a Kennedy enthusiast and a McCarthy heckler." There seems to be a distinction here—enthusiast versus heckler? It's a perspective issue, same as today. Or it really was a McCarthy fan sending jeering words at a Kennedy fan. "I want to find jobs for all our people," said Bobby into a bullhorn. I want to find jobs for the black people of Watts, and the white people of eastern Kentucky. I want a reconciliation of blacks and whites in the United States" (273-274).
Reconciliation? You see, blacks and whites didn't always not get along. They don't all not get along today. See the movie Free State of Jones playing now and you'll see what I mean. The more we live with each other, the more we can. That's why desegregation was so important in the 1960s, but still, we see so many places today where a white hasn't seen a black, except on TV.
Bobby was devastated by the death of Martin Luther King, and was tempted to withdraw. Shades of Dallas had to have run through his head. But he knew he had to speak out. "But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land" (281).
And later: "For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter" (283).
How far have we come, really? Shouldn't we be ashamed that many of these words can still be said today? Where is the hope of the 60's?
Kennedy began winning heavily with the black population, to the point of Ethel saying, "don't you wish everyone was black?" (299) When Kennedy didn't do as well as expected, Newfield intimated a double standard: "If Kennedy had the relationship that McCarthy has with Shana Alexander and Mary McGrory, it would be a scandal. But Gene can get away with it because no one accuses him of buying off the press. So he gets a free ride."
If Kennedy was like Sanders early in the race, he became like Hillary later. Bobby appealed to the blacks, as Hillary does, and both are accused of duplicitous methods. Was Bobby using his brother's name? Newfield believed the opposite was true (303). By invoking their mistakes and how wrong the war was, and ramping up on Civil Rights, Bobby was making a name for himself. Hillary, too, puts herself squarely with the liberals and women's and black rights, and the need for more gun regulation.
A man heckled Bobby at one of his stops, and the police arrested him. Bobby said to let him go, but they wouldn't. So Bobby promised to get him out of jail as soon as he was elected. That kind of peaceful rhetoric seems missing now, where this kind of heckling had been easier to tolerate.
Bobby also pursued gun control legislation, and he tested the ground against rifles and hunters in Oregon, known for being very volatile state over the issue. He lost Oregon, but he loved to challenge his audiences, not cater to them (307). This was before the California vote, and if he didn't get that, he wasn't sure he could keep going.
His speech in Oregon is worth noting: "Nobody is going to take your guns away. All we're talking about is that a person who's insane, or is seven years old, or is mentally defective, or has a criminal record, should be kept from purchasing a gun by money order."
After Johnson announced he wasn't running, Bobby took on Hubert Humphrey with the same vigor of being pro-war that Johnson was. "If the Vice President is nominated to oppose Richard Nixon (and Nixon was pretty much running in the primary unopposed), there will be no candidate who has opposed the course of escalation of the war in Vietnam" (313).
In Oregon, McCarthy had scored heavily against Bobby, but Bobby didn't counterattack, fearing to appear ruthless, and not wanting to alienate McCarthy's college voters. He wanted people to see him as running against Humphrey. McCarthy, on the other hand, went after Bobby's previous pro-war record with his brother. But Newfield noted that Bobby was on record as being anti-war even before McCarthy (315).
Bobby finally agreed to debate McCarthy before the California primary, and of course they each won it, depending on who you listened to. But when his staff asked why Bobby blew the closing remarks so badly, he said, "You won't believe it, but I was daydreaming. I thought the program was over and I was trying to decide … where to take Ethel for dinner" (321-322).
The last time the author talked with Bobby, it was about Bob Dylan. Bobby had just heard the song "Blowing in the Wind" and was very struck by it. He decided he wanted to meet Dylan. As they talked and Newfield wondered how Bobby could win the activist students, Bobby turned to brood out the window again (324).
Toward the end of California campaigning, those in Bobby's camp decided that Bobby and McCarthy were alike on so many issues, and the focus still needed to be against Humphrey. Yet on June 4th McCarthy claimed that Martin Luther King had endorsed him; that Bobby once had his phones tapped (330). Some feared Bobby wouldn't take New York later. Others feared this country was going to kill another Kennedy, "and then we won't have a country" (327).
We all know what happened. He was killed, just after winning California. We can hope and pray that never happens in this country again, even as the death toll from guns rises. Newfield ends the book without mentioning the killer's name, and just asking "Why?"
As you think about the campaign in 2016, let Bobby's last words stay with you:
I ask you to recognize the hard and difficult road ahead to a better America –and I ask you tomorrow to vote for yourselves. The people must decide this election—and this must decide so that no leader in America has any doubt of what they want. For your sake, and for the sake of your children, vote for yourself tomorrow (327).
I don't want to share the author's final words because, quite frankly, I don't want to believe them. "And from this time forward, things would get worse; our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope. The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone."