Echoes of 1968
By Michael M. Bates
It's been 40 years since his passing, but Robert Kennedy is again in the news. One reason is Hillary Clinton's imprudent mention of his assassination. Barack Obama and media accomplices managed to turn that molehill into a mountain in near-record time.
Another reason is that Obama has invoked Bobby's memory throughout his campaign. People who weren't around 40 years ago have been instilled with the fable of Kennedy's pristine greatness and Barack hopes to benefit by the association.
I wonder how many of Obama's young, college-educated liberals know much about the real Bobby Kennedy. Would their admiration be diluted if they knew of a 1956 conversation he had with an assistant attorney general in the Eisenhower administration?
"The trouble with you Republicans is that you have done away with the very best man your party has," Bobby told the appointee. When asked who that was, his reply was Joe McCarthy. Yes, that Joe McCarthy. The official asked if Kennedy were joking. The response: "I am not kidding. I think so well of the man I made him a godfather of one of my children."
Which is true. Joe McCarthy was the godfather of Kennedy's oldest child. And when the infamous Red hunter from Wisconsin was buried in 1957, Bobby Kennedy flew to Appleton for the services.
Kennedy's entrance into the 1968 presidential campaign wasn't as daring as some believe. On January 30, he had told reporters he had "no plans to oppose Lyndon Johnson under any foreseeable circumstances."
New Hampshire's March primary led to an unexpectedly strong showing by antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy against the incumbent Johnson. Four days later, Bobby announced his own candidacy. He was running, he claimed, "because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all that I can." Funny how that sense of onerous obligation didn't kick in until McCarthy pulled 42 percent of the New Hampshire vote.
Kennedy said he'd end the war in Vietnam, which was only fair since his brother John had so deeply involved the U.S. in it. Bobby thrilled liberals in late 1965 when he approved of sending blood to North Vietnam, which then was engaged in killing American soldiers. He said doing so would be "in the oldest tradition of the country." Sure, in the tradition of Benedict Arnold.
Still, Bobby didn't want to be seen as a strident liberal, at least not by the time the primaries moved on to Indiana. There he berated the welfare system as "a dole" and "a payoff." One Indiana commentator even referred to Kennedy as a "states' rights" candidate.
Ronald Reagan, then California's Governor, noted the change in Bobby's stands: "I get the feeling that I've been writing some of his speeches. When he gets before a Chamber of Commerce he talks like Barry Goldwater. But before some left-wing students at Berkeley, he sounds like Bettina Aptheker." Ms. Aptheker is a Marxist who, of course, doubles as a college instructor.
Bobby Kennedy became a millionaire at age four when a trust was established for him. In Ralph de Toledano's 1967 book RFK: The Man Who Would Be President, a Washington news analyst is quoted as saying he lost respect for Kennedy "when I saw that he had the rich man's habit of being ready to spend anybody's money but his own." The source cited fundraising for a new playground at a Catholic school as an example. Bobby was excited about the project, but made it clear "he wouldn't contribute a penny."
Kennedy is remembered for expressing deep concern for helping the poor. A 1968 Time magazine article described Kennedy's foray into poverty-stricken eastern Kentucky:
"Why, Kennedy was asked in the township of Pippa Passes, was a man reared to a multimillionaire's comforts concerned with the plight of Kentucky's poor? ‘I can't answer that question,' Bobby confessed. ‘Sorry.'"
Despite his inability or unwillingness to answer the question, Bobby Kennedy attracted millions of Democrats with his message of hope and change. Barack Obama is trying to do the same.
One big difference is experience. Bobby Kennedy managed his brother's successful senatorial and presidential campaigns, served as a Justice Department attorney, later as counsel for several different Senate committees, and, courtesy of his brother, was U.S. attorney general for almost four years.
Barack Obama's principal claim to fame is being a community organizer, a law school lecturer, and an unexceptional state legislator for a few years. Then he moved on to the U.S. Senate for a similarly unremarkable tour of duty while almost immediately deciding he's presidential material.
Oh, it also should be noted that Obama was a self-described "junior partner" in a small, politically-wired Chicago law firm. A 2007 article in the Chicago Sun-Times reported: "A search of all the cases in Cook County Circuit Court in which Obama made an appearance since he graduated from Harvard in 1991 shows: Zero."
That's an extraordinarily flimsy resume. Like Robert Kennedy, Barack Obama is benefiting from a cult of personality. It seems as though supporting him is akin to a religious experience for his worshipful adherents.
Kennedy's widow is supporting Obama's candidacy. In a statement, Ethel Kennedy said, "Barack is so like Bobby, who struggled for the rights of the poor in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia. . . ."
Actually, her husband was struggling for their votes. In the mythmaking world of rock stars like Kennedy and Obama, reality isn't all that important.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the May 29, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.