Back in 1988, on the 20th anniversary of the assassination, historian Arthur Schlessinger was more specific, and more sweeping, in his assessment of what America lost when Sirhan Sirhan killed Kennedy. Schlessinger wrote in a Newsweek column that, had Kennedy not been murdered, he would have catapulted from his victory in the California primary to the Democratic nomination. He then would have beaten Richard Nixon in the November presidential election. Winning the White House, Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War much sooner, cutting in half the number names now on that tragic Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
President Robert Kennedy, Schlessinger speculated, would have continued the reform tradition of the New Deal and New Frontier, might have achieved racial reconciliation between whites and blacks and, by defeating Nixon, would have prevented the national malaise ushered in by Watergate and the later failed presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
That’s a huge, messianic burden for a one-term U.S. Attorney General and four-year Senator from New York to bear, a similar one that has been thrust upon the shoulders of Bobby’s similarly-martyred brother John F. Kennedy. The idolization of both Kennedys represent prime exhibits of what historian refer to, usually with derision, as the “Great Man “ theory of history — the notion that the times are shaped not by larger forces like industrialization or racism, but by bold individuals of unique vision who rise above the moment and bend the world to their will.
Undoubtedly, the Kennedys are so widely mourned, and so much idealistic fantasy is still projected upon their memories, because of their youth at the time of their deaths, and their soaring eloquence. The Kennedy legend has mutated into a second, uniquely American historical myth, a “Garden of Eden” legend that America was innocent and infused with youthful energy before the martyrdom of Jack and Bobby, and that these deaths, along with the killing of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., jolted the nation into a terrible, destructive trajectory.
Ironically, given the populist nature of Bobby Kennedy’s anti-Vietnam War presidential campaign, such lionization is dangerously anti-democratic and disempowering. Depicting the American past at any point as innocent can only leave one paralyzed in the decidedly violent, corrupt, imperfect world we live in today. Such a view also is a lie. There was nothing pure about the America Bobby Kennedy inhabited in his 43 years — not the America of segregation or of the McCarthy hearings (of which he was a supportive side player as a member of the red-baiting Wisconsin senator’s legal staff.) There was nothing innocent in the America that in 1955 murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till for whistling at a white girl or that butchered three civil rights workers in 1964 for trying to make the theoretical right to vote a reality for African Americans. By the time Bobby died, the United States had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and American soldiers had already slaughtered about 300 unarmed men, women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.
There’s reason to think that not much would have changed had Bobby Kennedy lived. If he had reached the White House and fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw from Vietnam, Republicans and conservative Democrats would have pilloried him as the man who “lost Southeast Asia,” much as Harry Truman had been condemned as the man who supposedly lost China in 1949. There likely would have been a post-war recession, as happened under Nixon, when defense spending inevitably declined. White Americans would still have been frightened by the rise of assertive, black nationalist groups like the Black Panthers and liberal judges would still probably have ordered school busing in places like Boston, sparking a similar white backlash as has defined American politics for nearly four decades.
Bobby alone could not have healed the Arab-Israeli divide, which might still have sparked the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the resulting Arab oil embargo, an event that exposed the United States as economically vulnerable. In any case, the deindustrialization of the Northeast and the growing support for free trade in both parties would have eroded the strength of the union vote so essential to the Kennedy family’s national political ambitions.
Still, give Bobby his due. Here stood an unusually intelligent man whose command of the language approached Shakespearean grace. No better speech has ever been made by an American politician, except maybe by Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg, than the one Kennedy delivered spontaneously to an African American crowd one April 1968 night in Indiana after he learned of Rev. King’s assassination. His growth as a politician, from the harsh and intimidating bully who managed his brother’s presidential campaign in 1960 to the gentle man who caressed a Mississippi child sickened by malnutrition during a 1967 Senate investigation of poverty, only becomes more poignant and inspiring because he lived not in the Garden, but in a world that for too many was nasty, brutish and short.
His embrace of the sick, underfed child in that Mississippi shack stands out even more starkly because, by the 1990s, both parties had completely abandoned the poor. The image of that starving American faded, to be replaced by the ugly, Reagan-era cartoon of the “Welfare Queen.” The “New Democrats” of the Clinton era felt there was no percentage in reaching out to people too hungry and desperate to vote, when rich electoral awards awaited those who promised “to end welfare as we know it.” The platform of the new Democratic House leadership — long overdue raises in the minimum wage, reduced interest rates on student loans, and such — stand anemically aside earlier, bold visions of wars on poverty embraced by Democrats of Bobby Kennedy’s time.
Since Clinton, the left has clung to the Democrats mostly out of the fear of lost abortion rights and the threat of a Republican-led theocracy. Progressives settled for mediocrities like Clinton because giants like the Kennedy brothers don’t come very generation. Hero myths like the Kennedy legend ultimately poison democracy because they bind ideas that should transcend time to the stiff chains of mortality. When such heroes inevitably die, left behind is a demoralized public awaiting another knight on horseback to replace the slain idol.
Bobby’s ultimately doomed quest for the presidency, however, is less a story about how a young politician could have saved the world but for a gunman’s bullet, but about how ordinary, faceless and nameless Americans, many working class and not college educated, turned against the Vietnam War and demanded a new direction. Kennedy’s last political crusade may ultimately have been deferred for four years, but it did not die in that kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy lived and died in a world without easy victories and without Christ-like heroes, but only people who wrestled with and slowly came to terms with the truth and managed their best to live accordingly. To mythologize the Kennedy past Hollywood-fashion, sadly, is to deny the late senator’s true bravery.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.