Bobby, He Hardly Knew Ye | The Nation


Bobby, He Hardly Knew Ye

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The only problem with this book is that there is no good reason to read it. Ronald Steel is a very bright fellow and his Lippmann biography (Walter Lippmann and the American Century) is a classic, but In Love With the Night does neither the author nor its subject, Bobby Kennedy, justice.

Robert Scheer was the last journalist to interview Robert Kennedy.

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Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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This slim volume carries a disclaimer: It is not intended as a biography but rather as an essay on the enduring popular misconception of Bobby, a deconstruction of myth, as some reviewers have claimed. That does not absolve the author of his failure to understand that which continues to excite in the memory of this Kennedy: his immense ability to inspire. Indeed, the very idea that a politician might energize others is treated as the subject of scorn, and derision of the activist mood itself is the book's only true passion.

In Love With the Night is, first off, based on an unwarranted assumption of political controversy: that Bobby was, or is, a revered liberal icon and undeserving of that honor. But that notion hardly requires the debunking offered here. Surely anyone who has ever been even mildly curious about Bobby knows of his early association with Senator Joe McCarthy, his enthusiasm for the cold war, his blind loyalty to Kennedy family power, overwhelming political ambition and conversion quite late in his short life to goals of social justice.

The conventional liberal in the 1968 presidential primary season was known to all to be Eugene McCarthy, and the competition with Bobby for the Democratic nomination was not over the purity of the progressive agenda; rather, it was caused by the momentum that Bobby brought to what even back then had come to be seen as a compromised and forlorn cause.

What Steel misses is that the discredited "best and brightest," those authors of the Vietnam War so dubbed by David Halberstam, including Lyndon Johnson, whom Bobby sought to succeed, were themselves clearly marked as liberals. Bobby's challenge was not to revive the world of liberalism but rather to put some political muscle into a new alliance, enlisting the likes of Paul Schrade of the UAW and Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers to stand with the antiwar students in turning the domestic social engineering and incessant foreign interventionism of cold war liberalism to human purpose.

To take the money paying for the carpet-bombing of Vietnamese farmland by B-52s and devote it instead to programs for poor Native Americans, blacks and Latinos in this country was the mantra of Bobby's last years--in short, to save Johnson's War on Poverty from his war on poor peasants. So, too, for Gene McCarthy; but the fey Senator from Minnesota, an ever-quirky, aloof and indelibly patrician politician, failed to convey the life-and-death implications, the bleeding human dimension, of his challenge to Johnson. Not so that ordinary folk could grasp it, anyway.

What Bobby was, and McCarthy never could be, was exciting. He could galvanize people into action, particularly younger people, to work in the black ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant when it suited his needs as a senator from New York, or later to support Native Americans or Latino farmworkers during his presidential primary campaign. One runs into people to this day, not the least being the actual progeny of Bobby, who retain that commitment to action.

Undoubtedly, Bobby could be cynical, as Steel observes, but this is hardly an addition to the literature on him, which Steel largely glosses over. But there was something infectious about this Kennedy's enthusiasm, which made it believable not only to his audience but to Bobby himself. Those of us who covered him understood the contradiction well, and Steel at least acknowledges that it was the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, certainly a pre-eminent liberal commentator all these years, and a McCarthy delegate, who endlessly poked fun at "the two Bobbys." But that second Bobby, moved by a visit to an Indian reservation or farm labor camp, was also real.

Maybe it was no more than the ability (which Bill Clinton also has) to combine a raging opportunism with the solid commitment to opportunity for all, a commitment born of his own experience. Bobby's history was the opposite of bitter poverty. But certainly after the assassination of his brother, this was a fellow who felt some important things deeply. Bobby wrestled with the contradictions and incompleteness of the JFK years and the disgrace of LBJ's escalation in Vietnam. While that may not have made him a less deliberately centrist President than Clinton, it is difficult to believe that the emotional content of either man's rhetoric is all fake.

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