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Guest Column: Bobby Kennedy: America’s great ‘what if’

Guest Column: Bobby Kennedy: America’s great ‘what if’

For The Daily Gazette

Fifty years after he was assassinated on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy remains the standard for enlightened political leadership.

Barack Obama described his legacy: “This man who was never president, who was our attorney general for only three years, who was New York’s junior senator for just three and a half, still calls to us today. Still inspires our debate with his words, animates our politics with his ideas, and calls us to make gentle the life of a world that’s too often coarse and unforgiving.”

Kennedy is the haunting “what if” of recent history.

Would the political landscape be different if he had not been murdered? 

This question has intrigued biographers and was the premise of Mitchell Freedman’s novel, “A Disturbance of Fate, the Presidency of Robert F. Kennedy.”

A challenge in assessing Kennedy is reconciling the arrogant young man who worked briefly for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and plotted to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the more open-minded incarnation that read the Greek classics, opposed the Vietnam War and fought for the disenfranchised.

The key to Kennedy’s transformation was what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called his “experiencing nature.”

“He lived through a time of unusual turbulence in American history; and he responded to that turbulence more directly and sensitively than any other political leader of the era. History changed him, and, had time permitted, he might have changed history. He never had a chance to fulfill his own possibilities, which is why his memory haunts so many of us now.”

Kennedy’s time as U.S. attorney general was important in his political growth.

The Kennedy brothers hoped to move slowly on civil rights to avoid alienating Southern voters, but Bobby recognized it as a moral issue.

He became a lightning rod for the anger of Southern whites.

President Kennedy’s assassination was the turning point in Bobby’s transformation. 

He became more introspective, empathetic and fatalistic.

Richard Goodwin observed: “Bobby Kennedy, after November 1963, was like a landscape riven by an earthquake, familiar landmarks shattered.”

Biographer Larry Tye noted, “The values and qualities that would define him were present from the beginning, but they fully blossomed only after his father’s disability and his brother’s death.”

Bobby was intense, passionate and courageous, but lacked JFK’s confidence, dispassionate intellect and disarming personality.

Bobby Kennedy was deeply affected by the poverty he saw in Mississippi, in Bedford Stuyvesant, on Native American reservations and among migrant workers.

Soon after Bobby launched his presidential campaign, President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race.

Kennedy found his voice on the campaign trail and was attempting to build a coalition of poor whites, blacks and youth.

He demonstrated political courage that was rare in 1968 and even rarer today.

Addressing students, Kennedy said that college draft deferments should be eliminated because they were unfair to those unable to attend college.

When a medical student asked where he would get the money to pay for all the new programs, Bobby responded, “From you.”

The campaign’s most moving event took place in Indianapolis after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Speaking to the predominantly black crowd, Kennedy talked publicly about his brother’s death for the first time and called for racial reconciliation.

Riots broke out in over 100 cities, but Indianapolis stayed calm.
Jack Newfield’s memoir captured Kennedy’s essence: “Part of him was soldier, priest, radical and football coach. But he was none of these. He was a politician.

Orwell’s observation about Gandhi applies to Robert Kennedy, “Regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!” 

William Hogan is a freelance writer from Albany.

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