WORTH REPEATING: The Last Good Campaign

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[via the current issue of Vanity Fair]

In 1968, with the country divided over the war in Vietnam, the Democratic Party struggled to rally behind a candidate. Amid this political turbulence, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, guided by a set of principles and his burning opposition to the war, entered the race. The party establishment reacted with dismay, but his candidacy, coming just five years after the assassination of his brother John F. Kennedy, filled the electorate with hope—a hope that met a violent end just a few months later.

By Thurston Clark

Two months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Robert Kennedy traveled to Asia on an itinerary that had originally been planned for J.F.K. During the trip, he visited a girls’ school in the Philippines where the students sang a song they had composed to honor his brother. As he drove away with CBS cameraman Walter Dombrow, he clenched his hands so tightly that they turned white, and tears rolled down his cheeks. He shook his head, signaling that Dombrow should remain silent. Finally he said in a choked voice, “They would have loved my brother.” Dombrow put his arm around him and said, “Bob, you’re going to have to carry on for him.” Kennedy stared straight ahead for half a minute before turning to Dombrow and nodding. It was then, Dombrow said, that he knew Bobby would run for president and realized how much he loved him.

A deep, black grief gripped Robert Kennedy in the months following his brother’s assassination. He lost weight, fell into melancholy silences, wore his brother’s clothes, smoked the cigars his brother had liked, and imitated his mannerisms. Eventually his grief went underground, but it sometimes erupted in geysers of tears, as had happened in the Philippines. He wept after seeing a photograph of his late brother in the office of a former aide, wept when asked to comment on the Warren Commission Report, and wept after eulogizing J.F.K. at the 1964 Democratic convention with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Kennedy was still mourning his brother and endeavoring to live for him when he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in the autumn of 1964, telling a friend that he wanted to ensure that the hopes J.F.K. had kindled around the world would not die, and saying in his victory statement that he had won “an overwhelming mandate to continue the policies” of President Kennedy. And at first it appeared that his 1968 presidential campaign—challenging his brother’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, for the Democratic Party’s nomination—would be another homage to J.F.K. Bobby announced his candidacy on March 16 in the caucus room of the Old Senate Office Building, the room that his brother had used for the same purpose. He stood in the same spot and began with the same sentence: “I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States.” After saying that he was running to “close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old,” he concluded with a passage that made him sound like his brother, perhaps because it had been contributed in part by Ted Sorensen, who had been his brother’s speechwriter: “I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.”

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Some advisers had urged him to excise this passage from his speech, arguing that it represented the kind of New Frontier hubris that had ensnared America in the Vietnam War, which Kennedy now fervently opposed. Washington Post reporter David Broder would disparage the speech’s reliance on “the nostalgic rhetoric of the earlier Kennedy era.” But Bobby’s “right to the moral leadership of this planet” line turned out to be closer to the truth than even he, or Ted Sorensen, realized at the time. At stake was not so much Americans’ moral leadership as their belief that they were worthy of such leadership.

In 1968, America was a wounded nation. The wounds were moral ones; the Vietnam War and three summers of inner-city riots had inflicted them on the national soul, challenging Americans’ belief that they were a uniquely noble and honorable people. Americans saw news footage from South Vietnam, such as the 1965 film of U.S. Marines setting fire to thatched huts in the village of Cam Ne with cigarette lighters and flamethrowers, and realized that they were capable of committing atrocities once considered the province of their enemies. They saw federal troops patrolling the streets of American cities and asked themselves how this could be happening in their City upon a Hill.

Nevertheless, on the day that Kennedy announced his candidacy, it was by no means obvious that 1968 would become a watershed year. Most of the year’s momentous events would occur after Kennedy’s March 16 announcement, with many of the most shocking ones unfolding during his campaign. Had you told anyone in the Senate caucus room that morning that during the next 82 days President Johnson would decline to seek a second term, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would both be assassinated, and America would suffer its worst racial disturbances since the Civil War, they might have believed that one or two of those things might happen, but not all, nor in such quick succession.

rfkvanityfair3.jpgAfter concluding his announcement, Kennedy took questions ranging from skeptical to hostile. But as he left the Capitol, supporters screaming his name grabbed at his clothes and leapt in the air to see him, much as his brother’s supporters had in 1960. Anyone witnessing this and hearing the New Frontier echoes in his announcement would have been justified in assuming that his campaign would indeed be an extended tribute to his brother. Instead, March 16 would be the end rather than the beginning of such a tribute, and during the next three months he would run on issues his brother had seldom raised and in a manner, at times, his brother would have found undignified.

Richard Nixon, who had lost the presidency to J.F.K. in 1960, watched Kennedy’s announcement from a hotel room in Portland, Oregon. John Ehrlichman, one of several aides in the room with Nixon, later wrote, “When it was over and the hotel-room TV was turned off, Nixon sat and looked at the blank screen for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, he shook his head slowly. ‘We’ve just seen some very terrible forces unleashed,’ he said. ‘Something bad is going to come of this.’ He pointed at the screen, ‘God knows where this is going to lead.’?” MORE

Text excerpted from The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America, by Thurston Clarke, to be published this month by Henry Holt and Company, L.L.C.; © 2008 by the author.

Photographs excerpted from A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties; photographs and text by Bill Eppridge; introduction by Pete Hamill; to be published this month by Abrams; © 2008 by Bill Eppridge.

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