It would be easy to make too much of the similarities between Robert F. Kennedy, who died on the night when the Democratic presidential nomination came within his grasp, 40 years ago today, and Barack Obama, who has just firmly taken hold of it. The times are different, and so are the men. But then again.
Hope, like greatness, is a thing some men have thrust upon them. They emerge as repositories for the finer yearnings of a confused and bitter nation, a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected not as the people we are, but as the people we would like to be—and may, because of them, inch slightly closer to becoming. Whether or not they are worthy of such faith is, in the end, less important than the fact that they inspire us to be more worthy ourselves.
This is why it’s a mistake to dismiss Obama as being “only” inspirational. Despite the example set by our current president, competence is not all that difficult to come by in Washington, DC. (In fact, our permanent civil service could get most things done much more effectively without any political leadership at all.) But someone who can make us believe that this country of ours might actually pull itself together and become a little bit more compassionate or a little bit more just, someone who encourages us to dedicate ourselves to that goal rather than to just lowering our taxes or paying less for gasoline—that’s something found far more rarely inside the Beltway.
For my generation, I suppose that someone was Bobby Kennedy, though I’m not sure I realized it at the time. On the war, there wasn’t much difference between Kennedy and his rival on the left, Eugene McCarthy. They both wanted to get us out of Vietnam. VP Hubert Humphrey may have been the insider candidate, but he came out of the highly progressive Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as did McCarthy, and late Senator Paul Wellstone), and hewed to a liberal platform that would seem radical by the standards of today’s post-Democratic Leadership Council Democratic Party. By contrast, Bobby Kennedy, in many ways, had only recently evolved into a true progressive. And some saw Kennedy, who got into the race only after Lyndon Johnson’s poor performance in the New Hampshire primary, as an opportunist who was strong on rhetoric but short on substance.
Even Kennedy’s most visible virtue, his deep concern for the poor, had its problems. The Kennedy poverty program, run by Sargent Shriver and taken up by Lyndon Johnson after Jack Kennedy’s assassination, quickly became a pork-barrel operation. In Chicago, for example, millions of federal dollars were pumped into Mayor Richard Daley’s machine. None of the programs were conceived to threaten the status quo, which made them too tame for a lot of activists in the late 1960s. They were bootstrap projects, where the government would provide the poor with job training, education, and health care to help them elevate themselves to a point where they could jump off into the middle class. For the most part, this never happened.
Two parts of the poverty program—Head Start, the program for young children, and Neighborhood Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance to low-income residents—did prove lasting and truly valuable. And some funds managed to filter through to the likes of Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer on the South Side of Chicago who advocated confrontation with the Daley machine, and encouraged his groups to engage in civil disobedience if need be. (Alinsky himself, however, knew how to work the system when he needed to. He reminded me of an old-school labor organizer—talking tough but in the end always willing to cut a deal in the back room. And I can remember radicals attacking him for his lack of revolutionary fervor, in the same way, incidentally, they attacked Ralph Nader, who was seen as a patsy for the legal profession. “A guy has to be a political idiot,” Alinsky scoffed at radicals back then, “to say all power comes out of the barrel of a gun when the other side has the guns.”
Saul Alinsky believed that power flowed up from the streets and was there for the taking, if only people believed they could do so. By 1968, Bobby Kennedy had taken up the idea of “decentralization” (in part, as an alternative to welfare), championing a new Community Action Program (not unlike a more radical model advanced by Students for a Democratic Society), which would allow federal anti-poverty projects—and funds—to be run by the populations they served.
Maybe that had something to do with what began to happen during Bobby Kennedy’s brief presidential campaign, when he went out into the streets in the spring of 1968. Or maybe it was just something about the man. My friend Jack Newfield, the late Village Voice reporter, used to say that Kennedy was more priest than politician. Newfield often accompanied Kennedy during a campaign that took him to Indian reservations, into Appalachia, through Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant or East L.A., to small gatherings with family farmers, to classrooms where he sat down and talked with children as if they were actual human beings. Newfield recalled that on a trip through Watts a few days before RFK’s death, “He said to me, ‘I want you to see what I see. And I see this ecstasy in the eyes of blacks and Mexican Americans.'” The television cameras saw it, too, as they followed him to places they usually wouldn’t dream of going, and millions of Americans in their living rooms saw it. You can still see it today, in the old footage—as he walks or rides through the urban streets, people reached out to touch him as they would a talisman, as if the touch alone would empower and dignify them.
As he lay dying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen pantry, his head was cradled by a Mexican American busboy. The previous day the same busboy, Juan Romero, had delivered room service to Kennedy. “He shook my hand as hard as anyone had ever shaken it,” Romero later said. “I walked out of there 20 feet tall, thinking, ‘I’m not just a busboy, I’m a human being.’ He made me feel that way.”
People like to talk about populism and change, but in the world of gritty American politics, where parties are locked in a petty and intractable clench, change seldom takes place. The people around Kennedy felt he was on the leading edge to a new world. Yet the actual policy changes Bobby Kennedy proposed were modest—for the most part, slightly better versions of the kinds of plans for jobs, health care, or environmental protection that Democrats are still floating today. His approach, however, was something else. When doctors asked Kennedy who was going to pay for improved medical care, he replied, “You will.” He told corporate executives they had a moral responsibility to the citizenry. He insisted leaders take responsibility for their actions. George W. Bush is not his type of guy.
In a speech given a few days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and two months before his own, Kennedy said:
We know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
Barack Obama’s speechwriters must have studied this speech and others like it. Yet it means something—even if it does not mean everything we would wish—that words and sentiments like Bobby Kennedy’s sound plausible coming from the lips of Obama, as they would from few other politicians I can think of.
Obama is no populist, either, in any meaningful sense of the word; his proposals for change are modest, and his movement about as thin as Bobby Kennedy’s. He is a shrewd politician, appealing to the grassroots but also willing to deal with powerful corporate interests, just as Kennedy dealt with the machine politics of Mayor Daley and his ilk, knowing that he could not win without them. But Obama has something close to the same sense of public duty that Bobby Kennedy had. And somewhere inside his chest there seems to be a beating human heart, which is something we haven’t had in the White House for a good long time.