The Enduring Legacy of Bobby Kennedy — Charles P. Pierce.
Because it has been 50 years, his grandson is my congressman now—a young, passionate red-haired fellow with a crooked smile and a fascinating back story of his own to tell. My congressman’s mother was the first person to take a chunk out of the hide of the unspeakable Bernard Cardinal Law long before the clerical sex-abuse scandal broke and won everybody Pulitzers and Oscars. She took on the Roman Catholic Church’s ridiculous annulment process and won. She fought the case for a decade and finally got the Vatican to cry “Avunculus!” in 2007. My congressman was one of the reasons she fought so hard against preposterous odds. Because it has been 50 years, and there is a through-line that leads all the way back to a cold tiled floor in a hotel kitchen, the end of one good fight and the beginning of so many others.
I have no idea whether Robert F. Kennedy actually would have been elected president in 1968 if someone with a gun hadn’t gotten in the way, as people with guns tended to do during that plague-ridden year. He certainly was building momentum toward his party’s nomination. He had won in places like Indiana and Nebraska, and he had bounced back from having lost in Oregon with a high-stakes win in California. It is possible, as so many of the wise guys of the time claim now in retrospect, that he could have pulled the two wings of the Democratic Party close enough together to beat Richard Nixon, who was not as inevitable as events indicated at the time.
(Hell, Hubert Humphrey almost whipped him and, given another week, probably would have.)
But I am far from completely convinced of that. The Chicago convention likely would have been a free-for-all anyway, inside and outside the hall. The honest protestors might have been mollified by his nomination, but the angrier of the species would have caused their trouble anyway. At the very least, it’s possible that fewer heads would have been busted and it would have been less likely that Dan Rather would have been sucker-punched on live TV.
And what of President Lyndon Johnson, already a lame duck and with nothing at all to lose? How would he have reacted to the nomination of his nemesis to replace him? LBJ, as much as I respect much of what he did, was capable of anything at that point. That is a riddle that was rendered unsolvable by those gunshots in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel.
What I do know is that his campaign was like no other—a howling cri de Coeur from a wounded nation in a world gone mad around it. It is remembered fondly because the cri de Coeur seemed to be one of stubborn hope that the country could be pulled back from the abyss into which it was staring. But there were other cries from other coeurs that year, too.
Running on the ur-Trumpian platform of the American Independent Party, George Wallace and Curtis LeMay managed to rack up 46 electoral votes, carrying five states, all of them in the old Confederacy. Nixon saw this, and the Southern Strategy was born. In truth, the cri from the coeur of the Wallace campaign has echoed more loudly through American politics than has anything Robert Kennedy said or did as a candidate in 1968. His cri died away when his coeur stopped beating. There is a profound sadness in that.
Whatever it was that drew people to Robert Kennedy is lost to time, although there was some evidence of its abiding force in the two campaigns that Jesse Jackson ran, and even more in the 2008 election of Barack Obama. But the ferocity that drove the Kennedy campaign in 1968, the outrage burning beneath all the healing rhetoric, has been lost ever since. Politicians, and Democratic politicians in particular, became frightened by passion, by the personal, visceral force that drove RFK into the Indianapolis ghetto and announce to the crowd the news of the murder that night of Dr. King, quoting Aeschylus along the way.
That is still the most astonishing performance I have ever seen from a politician, because it was not a politician speaking that night. It was a bleeding country talking through a man who’d already seen tragedies descend upon himself like dark and predatory birds. It was a human being who’d already lost a sister and two brothers, the last of whom was killed from ambush while he was President of the United States.
One of the most remarkable passages from that Indianapolis appearance, a moment unlike any in American politics before or since, came when RFK talked about the murder of his brother.
For those of you who are black—considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love. For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with—be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
That sentiment can be read, in cold pixels, as almost condescending, but the crowd didn’t take it that way. His brother’s murder almost killed him. He knew it, and the people in the streets of Indianapolis knew it and drew a connection unlike any other and believed that he felt the way they felt. No politician since that night ever has spoken so frankly about the power of love and compassion in politics, not even Barack Obama, who often sounded as though he believed love and compassion were always present, even though events have proven that not to be the case. Love and compassion have to be dragged to the surface of our politics, and, even when all the effort is expended to do so, there’s still no guarantee that anyone will buy them.
Ultimately, the great unknowable is whether the country would have taken the turns it took in the 1970s and 1980s, the dangerous detours that have brought us to our present moment, if there had been no guns in the kitchen that night. The reactionary forces against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement already were gathering force, and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the Republicans would have formed their dark alliance with the remnants of American apartheid even more swiftly had Nixon been defeated by yet another Kennedy.
I would like to think that Robert Kennedy would have been able to stand against the foul gales that were then rising. I prefer to think that he would have, because I prefer to think of this country as perpetually redeemable. So many of our wounds are self-inflicted, and, by and large, through our history, we’ve at least made some good faith effort to heal them and to atone to ourselves for having inflicted them in the first place. That, ultimately, is what Robert Kennedy stood for and, alas, what he died for as well. Wisdom, through the awful grace of God.
A Good Week — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on the Democrats’ results in the primaries.
Donald Trump has had a remarkable impact on American politics. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, he occupied and conquered the Republican Party by mobilizing disaffected, non-college-educated white voters. His accession to the Presidency politicized and mobilized another big segment of the population: liberal, college-educated Americans of all races, particularly women. As the past week has confirmed, this mobilization is just as real as the Make America Great Again phenomenon.
Most coverage of Tuesday’s midterm primaries has concentrated on California, the nation’s most populous state, but I’ll focus here on New Jersey, which may be a bellwether. If there’s anything that analysts from across the political spectrum agree on, it’s that the November general election will be decided in the suburbs and exurbs, where Democrats are targeting Republicans and Independents put off by Trump. New Jersey is perhaps the most suburban of all the states, and, although it has been trending toward the Democrats in recent years, it still has five Republican congressional districts.
The Democrats have their sights set on four of them: the Second, which covers the southernmost portion of the state, from Atlantic City to the Delaware Bay; the Third, which runs across the south-center of the state, from Toms River to close to Philadelphia; the Seventh, which extends from just west of Newark along Route 78 to the Pennsylvania line; and the Eleventh, which includes much of affluent Morris County, and which has for the past twenty-four years been represented by Rodney Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who is retiring.
On Tuesday, the Democrats got a strong turnout in all of these districts, except in the Third, where both parties’ primaries were uncontested. In fact, more Democrats voted in these G.O.P. districts than Republicans. (Democrats 112,751; Republicans 100,028.) For a number of reasons, it doesn’t make sense to extrapolate these figures directly to the general election. But at the very least, they point to an enthusiasm gap between the two parties that augurs poorly for Republicans.
So does the fact that the Democrats chose some experienced candidates who won’t be easy for the G.O.P. to defeat this fall. Two of them worked in the Obama Administration: Andy Kim (Third District) and Tom Malinowski (Seventh District). Jeff Van Drew, who won in the Second District, is a veteran state senator who, in the past, has supported lax gun laws and opposed gay marriage. His victory outraged some progressive Democrats, but his conservative views may well help him in a district that is largely blue-collar, and which Trump carried in 2016.
The victory, in the Eleventh District, of Mikie Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor and Navy pilot, demonstrated the key role that people new to politics, and especially women, are playing in the anti-Trump mobilization. She told the Bergen Record’s Charles Stile that she was motivated to run by Trump’s “attacks on women, minorities, Gold Star families, POWs, and the Constitution.” She lives in liberal Montclair, a focal point for anti-Trump activism in the state. In addition to criticizing Trump and supporting Robert Mueller, the special counsel, she has also stressed pocketbook issues, such as health care and the impact on New Jersey homeowners of the Republican tax bill, which limited local property-tax deductions. Her formidable presence in the race was one of the factors that prompted Frelinghuysen, the scion of a New Jersey political dynasty, to retire.
The success of centrists like Sherrill demonstrates that the anti-Trump movement isn’t an ideological phenomenon. It is based on a visceral reaction to the President, the values—or lack of values—he represents, and the way he is running roughshod over Presidential norms. You can see this all across the country, as evidenced by a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which found that, by a margin of twenty-five percentage points, voters are more likely to go for a candidate who promises to provide a check on Trump.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent obtained a breakdown of these figures in districts that the Cook Report classifies as competitive, such as the four districts the Democrats are targeting in New Jersey. It showed the margin of voters wanting a check on the President was even larger in these places: thirty-three percentage points. “It should be noted that the vast, vast majority of these seats are held by Republicans,” Sargent wrote. “And so, in a whole lot of competitive seats mostly held by Republicans, majorities are more likely to vote for the candidate who will act as a check on Trump and will oppose him on most of his policies.”
Now, this was just one survey, and it did provide some encouraging bits of data for Republicans, including the fact that more than six in ten respondents said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the economic situation. As I noted earlier this week, the Republicans are trying to turn the midterms into a referendum on the economy. Over all, though, the findings of this poll and others released in recent days confirm what is evident in New Jersey—Trump’s presence in the White House has created a major backlash against him and his G.O.P. enablers. (The new polls also indicate that the Democrats still hold a big lead in the generic congressional ballot, which political analysts watch closely.)
Going into the campaign season, anti-Trump fervor remains the key factor shaping the political environment. With four months to go until the general election, some things could change. But it’s hard to see public sentiment toward Trump shifting much, and this week confirmed why Democrats have reason to be encouraged about the fall.
Doonesbury — Back to normal.