The legacy of Robert “Bobby” Kennedy

Robert Kennedy saw both the dream and the nightmare and tried to accommodate each.

(Public domain)

SAN DIEGO, June 4, 2015 – Novelist James Joyce once said there is no such thing as the luck of the Irish. Instead, he wrote, “The history of Ireland is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

So, too, the history of those Irish named Kennedy. This June marks the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Robert Francis Kennedy, seventh child and third son of Boston’s first family—that mythical clan of New England lore.

Had he lived, Bobby Kennedy might well have changed the course of history as no other politician of his generation. But then, he was no ordinary politician. He was a Kennedy, which, of course, set him apart both in life and in death.

In the PBS documentary, “The Luck of the Irish,” sports commentator Will McDonough remembered the Kennedys of Boston as something unlike anything he had ever seen growing up in Southie. Their lineage was of royalty and thus wholly unaffected by their ancestral suffering. They were everything the Irish despised and everything they had ever hoped to be. Inevitably, the family would fall from grace and suffer dearly for their good fortune.

Bobby Kennedy was not so much the black sheep of the family as he was the dark prince, a man whose destiny played out like the Greek tragedies he knew so well. His nature was that of the good son, the conscience of an often ruthless and reckless family and the arbiter between idealism and realism.

Where JFK appeared to flit between the raindrops of life, Bobby seemed to absorb the brunt of each passing storm. In so many of the iconic photographs taken of him, Bobby seemed to invariably be in the throes of inner turmoil, arduously steering along the straight and narrow in search of truth and justice. He had become independent only after emerging from the shadows of Camelot, and even then, it wasn’t enough. As playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote in “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “the Irish left their homeland for America only to discover that, in the end, they are never truly liberated from the roots of tragedy and despair.”

And neither was Bobby Kennedy. Still, he sought to change the world.

To his supporters, Bobby Kennedy was the last torchbearer for civil rights and human rights; for poor blacks in Mississippi and poor whites in Appalachia. To his critics, he was the epitome of bleeding heart liberalism. Spoiled. Arrogant. Tyrannical. And to the rest of the world he was a politician of unbridled passion. 

Upon graduation from Harvard, Bobby Kennedy promptly entered the arena of public service. After a brief stint as a correspondent for the Boston Post, he served as an assistant to Joe McCarthy. He was his brother’s attorney general and later a U.S. senator from New York. He fought corruption with vim and “vigah” wherever it reared its ugly head. Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters Union, the mob—anyone who threatened his pursuit of justice. He was relentless in rolled sleeves, endearing and smug, fashionably rumpled, a squinting caricature of tousled hair and flashing teeth.

To Republicans, Bobby Kennedy became the brief icon of radical chic when he called upon private enterprise to rebuild inner city decay. He believed in self-reliance and individual responsibility. And he wrestled with the fact that America’s culture of welfare and dependency was rooted in the fallibility of man and, as a result, manipulated and perpetuated by the Great Society of his nemesis, Lyndon Johnson. “Our efforts will come to little if they do not succeed in restoring importance to the lives of individual men,” said Kennedy.

In many ways, Bobby Kennedy had come full circle by the time he entered the race for the presidency. Sun drenched and windswept, his final days were a flurry of spontaneity and adulation. It was during the California primary that the candidate found his stride.

The campaign trail was full of youth and energy and optimism and paved by the trusted presence of men like Cesar Chavez, Jesse Unruh, Kenneth O’Donnell and Rafer Johnson, a rainbow coalition spanning the Golden State through inner city and Pacific coast and central valley. The speeches were eloquent and inspiring. The candidate was magnetic, a solitary figure reaching out to a thousand hands, luring a million dreams, a blinding light in those final days in 1968.

On May 28, a Field poll had Eugene McCarthy ahead by six points. By week’s end, Kennedy had not only closed the gap but surged ahead by five points.

And then Los Angeles. Having just declared victory, Kennedy thanked the crowd, left the ballroom through an adjacent kitchen, and was assassinated. The haunting photograph in Life magazine captured the moment. The candidate crumpled on the cold cement floor, clutching rosary beads and gazing up lifeless at Juan Romero, a 17-year-old busboy and Mexican immigrant who had come to his aid.

Bobby Kennedy was 42 years old when he died the following morning, June 6, 1968. A flag-draped train carried his casket on the final journey home from New York to Washington, D.C. The procession rolled across our television screens and through our backyards in a sweltering summer heat. Americans lined the tracks of the passing cities and towns waiting to catch a glimpse, waiting to pay their respects. They waved and saluted and threw roses. When the train reached its final destination in Arlington, the mourners joined hands and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Nearly a half century later his image is preserved in Kennedyesque style—playing touch football on the front lawn and soul-searching on the dunes at Hyannis Port.

Bobby Kennedy was not a common man, nor was he a savior. Rather, he was a son, a brother, a husband and a father.

What would have become of this nation had he lived? It is a question for the ages. A late surge may have secured the Democratic nomination, but it is unlikely he would have beaten Richard Nixon. America was too divided and torn by war, race and generation. Nixon was seen as the safe bet; Kennedy the gamble. He might have run in 1972 or 1976. He might have done a lot of things. If not for that damn luck of the Irish. And the curse of being a Kennedy.The cross that he bore was the guilt of wealth and privilege—impossible to assuage, for it grows in generational perpetuity.

The good son could not stand athwart history and yell “stop,” as his counterpart and contemporary William F. Buckley Jr. had advised. Such an act would have been anathema to the revolutionary thrusts of the day.

And yet, Bobby Kennedy was never quite suited for the spirit of that age. He was a little older and a little wiser. He saw both the dream and the nightmare and tried to accommodate each. After his death, Ted Kennedy gave a eulogy in which he said, “Some men see things as they are and ask why? My brother saw things as they might be and asked, why not?”

The true legacy of Robert Francis Kennedy is that he was able to see both.

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