Bobby, He Hardly Knew Ye

Bobby, He Hardly Knew Ye

Robert Scheer was the last journalist to interview Robert Kennedy.


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.

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.

In any event, Bobby’s level of sincerity is less important to this book’s thesis than how he affected people, and it is the suggestion that they were simply had, or even worse, driven to a frenzy by the rhetoric and emotion of the moment, that I resent.

Not because I was one of the faithful in Bobby’s crowd. As Steel mentions, I was one of Bobby’s critics from the left, and he quotes me saying in the pages of Ramparts that Bobby was “a very charming and alive man for a politician,” who offered the “illusion of dissent without its substance,” and cautioning that “he could easily co-opt prevailing dissent without delivering to it.” All true as a warning, but I also frequently gave the man his due for growth, as in his questioning of the Vietnam War and even his brother’s and his own earlier Cuba policy. Bobby was no saint, but he was indeed attuned in his last years to the hurt of people and open to the prospect that things did not have to be this way.

I was there, in Brooklyn, in Fresno and in LA the night Bobby died, conducting an interview and walking him to the elevator to meet the crowd. What I could respect, even with suspicion of the politician’s motive, and Steel can only fear, is the crowd’s jubilant reaction. It is that unleashed thrill of the possibility of activism, and not Bobby’s mixture of opportunism and muddled commitment, that Steel seems to find most disturbing.

Steel’s suspicion of those who rallied to Kennedy is even darker than that of the man himself–the suggestion being that this Kennedy, like his brother, invited his own death because of the people he encouraged. An oddly illogical explanation, since the convicted assassin was hardly a follower of the man he gunned down. Besides, there are forceful orators, like Teddy Kennedy, who remain quite alive. Nor does Steel attempt to explain Teddy’s dedicated translation of fiery stump rhetoric into the most humanly crafted and successfully implemented progressive legislation in the history of the Senate. Why is Teddy not a model for what Bobby might have become, perhaps the most principled and effective liberal politician of our time? And why is he barely mentioned in In Love With the Night, a book carrying only scant reference to a Senate career that should serve as at least one plausible guide to Bobby’s subsequent career, had he lived? I think the answer is not flattering to the author. This book is very selective in its citations and all too conveniently ordered to support a bare-bones thesis that Bobby was never worthy of the attention accorded him. Teddy is all but ignored perhaps because his work undermines Steel’s dismissal of Bobby. Bobby certainly would have ended up more progressive than McCarthy, who backed Reagan and who all too soon lost his enthusiam for the good liberal fight.

In insisting that Bobby was merely exploiting the crowds he aroused and disparaging that effect on the audience, this book turns into nothing so much as an apology, nay a celebration, of armchair analysts ever afraid to act. Better a discreet silence or subdued participation in endless wearying symposiums than the risk of an encounter with the crowds that Steel, in his barely restrained elitism, clearly holds to be the dangerous mob.

Steel’s contempt for those who might be moved by a politician’s words reaches an appalling nadir in his description of the “enchanted followers gathered” in the Ambassador Hotel the night of Bobby’s death. “They wanted not only to honor and adore, but even to possess him,” Steel writes, with the memory of one campaign aide as his single source of this characterization of an event Steel had not even witnessed firsthand. To one who was there, it seemed not very different, obviously prior to the shooting, than hundreds of such events. It is nonsense to insist that the emotions that evening were out of the range of many other victory parties. What one had was a mixture of fairly cynical pros and the excitement of volunteers not that different from what could be found quite close by in Los Angeles at one of Ronald Reagan’s or Jerry Brown’s election-night celebrations in other years. Certainly not so different as to warrant Steel’s castigation of the people at the Ambassador that night:

“Crowds seized by such emotions are animals straining at their leashes, threatening at any moment to break loose.” What crap! If that crowd was threatening to break loose, it was to partake of the free hors d’oeuvres and booze and to let the dancing begin.

What is on display here is the professionally disengaged writer as voyeur reeking with contempt for those who might be moved to participate actively in the history of their time. Steel is a fine thinker and thoroughly decent fellow whose brilliant biographical skills should be displayed in the treatment of a subject for which he has less loathing and greater insight. This is a project that should have been abandoned, and to convert it into an essay adds nothing. I suspect the reason this isn’t the once-promised biography of Bobby arises not from Steel’s exhaustion after having done an epic work on Lippmann but because he failed utterly to grasp Bobby Kennedy’s significance historically as a source of inspiration, often in short supply in the jaded political world that Steel embraces. Bobby had fire. “I’m going to chase Hubert [Humphrey]’s ass all over the country. Wherever he goes, I’ll go,” Kennedy told us that last night.

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