Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 156

Here are some excerpts from a book I recently read, "Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit," by Chris Matthews.
But the news of Kennedy’s decision to run struck many antiwar activists as both threat and insult to those already in the fight. I had this reaction myself. Despite having spoken out boldly against Johnson’s war, Bobby Kennedy had for months refused to match Gene McCarthy’s courage by committing himself as a candidate. That’s the way I saw it as a grad student in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For me, along with others of my generation facing the draft, Gene McCarthy had become a hero. 

Let me put this feeling of ours in the simplest, most human terms. McCarthy galvanized us and claimed our loyalty by being the lone grown-up with the courage to assert that the Vietnam War was ill-conceived and that he, Gene McCarthy, meant to stop it. In this escalating conflict between sons and fathers—Gene, a guy of my own dad’s era, was on our side. He told us we were right, and not just selfishly opposing a war because we were personally afraid to fight in it. We understood the patriotic call to duty our dads and uncles had answered in World War II, but Vietnam was different. They wouldn’t admit it. McCarthy had.

The immense wealth and security of the Kennedy family in twentieth-century America must be measured against the horrid poverty of their immediate ancestors. For those who lived, worked, and died on the subsistence farms of mid-nineteenth-century Ireland, life itself hung on the annual harvest of a single crop—the potato, which was the basic food for much of the country. A family had to survive an entire year on those pulled up the previous fall. If a new crop failed, as it did in what’s known as the Great Famine, the people starved. 

Over a period of years beginning in 1845, owing to a spreading blight, a million tenant farmers and their families, making up much of the country’s rural population, died of both hunger and disease. They were not Ireland’s only loss. More than a million others fled across the Atlantic, through what poet John Boyle O’Reilly would call “the bowl of tears.” 

The English government—at its head Queen Victoria, who’d assumed the throne eight years before at the untested age of eighteen—gave little sympathy, less help. In February 1847, it was announced in the House of Commons that fifteen thousand people a day were dying in Ireland. The young monarch “was so moved” by the ongoing tragedy, as a sarcastic Robert Kennedy would remark more than a century later, “that she offered five pounds to the society for Irish relief.” All official assistance issuing from London came, in fact, with a terrible condition: any family accepting it must forfeit its land.

Jack, looking to break the tension over what he’d done by choosing Johnson, now reassured his brother. “I’m forty-three years old,” he said. “I’m not going to die in office.” 

Still, the stored-up hatred for the Texan felt by Bobby Kennedy couldn’t be appeased. Inviting him to be part of the Kennedy campaign felt to him as if a foreign organ was being implanted in the political body the two brothers had formed over the years.

One early observation Kennedy made on his excursions through the building was the lack of minority attorneys at Justice. “Did you see any Negroes?” he asked Seigenthaler one day. It was then that he learned there were only eight African Americans working at Justice, each in a custodial job. Pursuing the matter further and being told that applications from men and women of color were nonexistent, he refused to accept the excuse. Instead, he began sending letters to law schools saying that the Justice Department was open to hiring black graduates. 

“We’re not seeking to give Negroes preference,” he wrote. “But we’re not getting any applications, and we want these young people to know that they will not be excluded because of their race. Will you please make a special effort to let Negroes know? Because we fear that over a long period they have been excluded.”

He’d long hated Communism, now loathed having a Communist country as a near neighbor, and, above all, hated that the enemy looked strong when his brother so clearly had not. He also was one of those predicting that it was only a matter of time before the Soviets brought in nuclear missiles to the island nation. For all these reasons, he accepted the leadership of a special interagency task force focused on the problem. “It was almost as simple as, goddammit, we lost the first round, let’s win the second,” National Security Council adviser McGeorge Bundy said. 

Code-named Operation Mongoose—after the snake-killing animal—it would carry out anti-Castro acts of sabotage, paramilitary plots, and a wide range of black bag schemes, all of which repeatedly failed. The Communist leader remained in unchallenged command of his country. Unmistakable with his cigar, trademark fatigues, and patrol cap, he cut a figure that seemed to mock the superpower determined to remove him.

On the eve of the convention, Johnson had been unable to stop worrying that, somehow, the vice presidential nomination might be stampeded to Bobby. Fueling this fear was the effect a twenty-minute film about John Kennedy, introduced by his brother Robert, would have on the men and women from the fifty states soon to arrive in Atlantic City. None would need reminding that, under different circumstances, they’d have been there to nominate the man they now saw memorialized on the screen before them for a second term. 

Thus, with such timing in mind, LBJ scheduled A Thousand Days—that being the number served by JFK before his assassination—for Thursday night, safely after the balloting. When Bobby arrived that evening, he found himself stuck by Johnson’s minions in a dingy room well below the convention floor to await his cue. Yet, even if the anointed Democratic candidate was unwelcoming, the crowd, most emphatically, was not. As he made his way to the stage, the entire Boardwalk Hall exploded into a standing ovation. Though he made efforts for them to stop, they had no effect. The exuberant clamor continued for twenty-two minutes, most of the time with Bobby attempting to end it. To no avail. 

Scoop Jackson, his old colleague from the McCarthy committee, was standing there to introduce him. But whenever Bob raised his hand to try to stop the outpouring of emotion, Jackson discouraged him. “Why don’t you let them get it out of their system, Bob?” Though this address to the convention has come to be known as the “Stars” speech for the quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet he applied to President Kennedy (“When he shall die take him and cut him out into stars . . .”), the first words Bobby uttered were these below. His rapt audience had no trouble taking them to heart. 

"No matter what talent an individual possesses, what energy he might have, no matter how much integrity and honesty he might have, if he is by himself—and particularly a political figure—he can accomplish very little. But if he is sustained, as President Kennedy was, by the Democratic Party all over the United States, dedicated to the same things he was attempting to accomplish, he can accomplish a great deal."

And then, before concluding by quoting his brother’s favorite poet, Robert Frost, he predicted that, “If we do our duty, if we meet our responsibilities and obligations, not just as Democrats, but as American citizens in our local cities and towns and farms and our states and in the country as a whole, then this generation of Americans is going to be the best generation in the history of mankind.” 

Afterward, alone on a fire escape, Robert Kennedy broke down in tears.

According to those observing him, the American visitor had tears in his eyes as he climbed to the stage. 

“I came here,” he began, “because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself as a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage.” 

Then he paused. “I refer, of course, to the United States of America.” 

With this perceptive matching of histories, that of his own country with that of his hosts, he offered a moral humility expected least of all by those defenders of the country’s system of white supremacy who’d criticized his coming to South Africa in the first place. He was setting a marker down: the United States might be further along on its historic course regarding race, yet that did not put it on a higher national pedestal.

It was Kennedy’s idea to call child psychiatrist Robert Coles to testify before the subcommittee about the brutal and long-lasting effects of extreme poverty on young children. Later, as Bobby’s guest for lunch at the Capitol, Coles found that his host’s questions about child development—about fathers and sons, about kids who don’t easily fit in, about trying always to prove oneself—seemed, really, to be about himself. 

Coles was struck, too, by the interest his new acquaintance, a politician with a reputation for toughness, showed in the spiritual life of people like Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez, both Catholics leading lives of Christian action. “He felt that he hadn’t been tested the way that Day had been tested, that she had the true Catholic spirit,” Coles told me. The total commitment of Chavez gripped him as well. 

Bobby, Coles could see, was drawn to know more about “the personal religious life of these people.” Yet he was aware of the Kennedy family’s history and understood that this third son “knew vulnerability alongside privilege and power.” Tough but gentle, is how he described him. “He had a willingness to put himself in the shoes of others, as well as walk in his own.”

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