After JFK's assassination, Robert Kennedy--Jack's political warrior--almost lost hope. He was haunted by his brother's murder, and by the nation's inabilities to solve its problems of race, poverty, and the war in Vietnam. Bobby sensed the country's pain, and when he announced that he was running for president, the country united behind his hopes. Over the action-packed days of his campaign, Americans were inspired by Kennedy's promise of a better time. And after an assassin's bullet stopped this last great stirring public figure of the 1960s, crowds lined up along the country's railroad tracks to say goodbye to Bobby. Historian Clarke provides an absorbing historical narrative that goes right to the heart of America's deepest despairs--and most fiercely held dreams--and tells us more than we had understood before about this complicated man and the heightened personal, racial, political, and national dramas of his times.
A stirring recount of the final days in the life of Bobby Kennedy. 1968 was one of those years that defined a generation and Bobby Kennedy was one of the reasons why and it wasn't just because of his assassination. In a time of severe crisis, Bobby was like a beacon of hope. A man who could bridge the divide between rich and poor, between black and white. He was like a rock star and campaigned with reckless abandon often thrusting himself into the clutches of the crowd.
"What did he have that he could do this to people?" Kennedy was moved by the suffering of others he saw around the country, around the world. A touch of the hand, a smile, the tears in his eyes. You could just feel the compassion, the desire to improve his fellow man. From the outset, Kennedy was running a very different kind of a campaign. As David Wise wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in March 24, 1968: "We take the position that the old rules don't apply. America is in flux, everything is changing. The old way of delegate hunting doesn't apply. We're going to the people."
Thurston Clarke does an admirable job retracing Kennedy's campaign rightly capturing the emotion of each moment in time. Clarke focuses most of his chapters covering Kennedy during the Indiana primary but also covers Oregon and finally California. In the great tragedies of life, Kennedy's most triumphant moment was also the fatal one. It was indeed ominous that Kennedy often cited his favorite poetry from the great Greek tragedies.
We could play what ifs all we want, but there's no doubt that Kennedy would've ensured that LBJ's Great Society was implemented to a full and logical conclusion. The fulfillment of the promise of "permanent prosperity" which FDR had begun. On the other hand, there is no conclusive evidence that Bobby would've beaten Nixon. After all, the backlash vote was a large one and the masterful politician in Nixon captured it easily through what we commonly refer to now as the silent majority.
Love him or hate him, the guy with the moptop was one passionate guy. As his brother Ted so famously eulogized, Bobby was a good and decent man "who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it". In the campaign year of 2008, this is really a great read that will hopefully restore your faith in politics.
In spite of its star-struck orientation, however, the book is worth reading if the only RFK you know is the “rabid ferret” RFK of the early 1960’s. The contention promulgated in this book is that the Bobby of 1968 was a different man – epiphanized, if you will, by visits to poor families in Cleveland, Mississippi and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. As the campaign progresses, Bobby seems more and more obsessed with ceasing foreign entanglements and investing the money at home, to cure poverty and promote equal rights.
Obviously this is not the same Bobby as the one that served in the JFK and LBJ administrations. But after reading this book, I became convinced that RFK - at the very least - began responding to all the reinforcement he got by being the only white politician to promise help for Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans. I also give him credit for not changing his campaign speeches to pander to his varied audiences, a practice now distressingly common.
How sincere was he? It’s hard to tell from this book. How much of his support was because he was a Kennedy? It sounds like a great deal of it was, even though this author tries hard to establish Bobby as a saint in his own right.
The Kennedys lived a charmed existence, while they lived. They had the money to live life to the fullest, and to evoke, as Jackie Kennedy observed so aptly, the halcyon days of Camelot. The political reality, however, was not as golden. Histories of the CIA demonstrate that the Kennedy brothers were very much taken by dirty tricks and assassinations; in fact, there is considerable evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was only payback for the many attempts on Castro’s life engineered by Bobby. The Kennedys also did not have a stellar record on Civil Rights; Jack paid political debts by nominating white racists to the Southern judiciary; and Bobby authorized the attempted destruction of Martin Luther King, Jr. by the FBI.
So, did Bobby genuinely do a 360 and become the champion of black Americans? This book doesn’t provide the answer. On the other hand, Bobby’s speeches are masterful, inspiring, and radical by today’s standards. If you can access his speeches in another venue, by all means do so. If not, this book is a start.
The writing itself; however, leaves something to be desired as Clarke becomes quite repetitive throughout, utilizing the same source material (and the same quotes) and the final product contains a number of grammatical/spelling errors.