Hogan's Alley

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Cannonization Of Bobby Kennedy

With the opening this Friday of Emilio Estevez' film about the night of the assasination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968, a media blitz has begun that both promotes the movie and implants in the public mind an image of Kennedy as a holy man of American liberalism.

Surely he did many good things in his life. As Attorney General he orchestrated a federal attack on Southern segregation that was aggressive for the times. He also seemed to have a genuinely warm and human touch when dealing with ordinary Americans. And he was a Kennedy and the glamorous heir-apparent to his dead brother's legacy in Camelot.

Since he has been dead for nearly forty years, many, if not most movie goers, will be having their first in depth look at Bobby. The wise among them will know that politicians are human and often have feet of clay. Even a cursory look at the Wikipedia bio of Kennedy will reveal that Kennedy was counsel for Joe McCarthy's witch hunt committee in the Senate and that he brought to bear the full passion and intelligence of his personality to that task.

He is also the Attorney General who ordered the surveillance and phone tapping of Martin Luther King. Not a noble moment in his biography.

In 1967 - 68 I was a admirer of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. This McCarthy had the temerity and courage to challenge Pres. Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy. It was McCarthy who came close, in March 1968, to beating Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary. This near loss caused Johnson to take himself out of the 1968 Presidential race. From my perspective, it was only then that Kennedy found the fortitude to come forward as a candidate for the White House. Kennedy glamor quickly outflanked McCarthy's boring earnestness. On the day of his death he was no doubt headed for the Democratic nomination and probable victory over Nixon in November. I, along with nearly everyone else, shed many tears for his loss and the barbaric place America was becoming.

For the rational part of me, however, Kennedy was not a knight in shinning armor. He was rather an opportunist fulfilling his father's dream and demand that a Kennedy boy be in the White House as well as bearer of his brother's torch. He was, more than any thing else, an eloquent politician for whom winning was the prime directive. Everything, from his youthful career to his carpetbagging a likely winnable Senate seat in New York, was part of the calculus. Causes mattered only as a way and means to the ultimate goal.

CBS in a story about the movie on last week's Sunday Morning show, dutifully proclaiming the coming sainthood, quoted historian Douglas Brinkley saying that, "The hard-boiled political operative of 1961, say, to 1964, changes," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. "It becomes from '65 to '68 the champion of the underdog. The myth of Robert Kennedy and the emotional aspect of his persona [is] the man who dared to care about the poor and the forgotten people."

To put it plainly, there is no evidence for this transformation. No one knows the man's heart. But it seems more reasonable to assume that the mature man (Kennedy was 40 years old in 1965) had incorporated the necessities of politics, which had been his whole life, within the temper of the times, the 60's of rock and revolution and the growing influence of the baby boomers as voters.

He was human, yet he may have made a great president. Unfortunately, we will never know. Perhaps Kennedy will become the mythical hero we seem to need if we are to continue to live as a nation in our age of pervasive cynicism. Surely no living politician will again be granted such immunity.