Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Echoes of Bobby Kennedy's 1968 Campaign

In its June 2008 issue, Vanity Fair magazine excerpted Thurston Clarke's book, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and the 82 Days That Inspired America, about Bobby Kennedy's short-lived - but enlivening - campaign. I started reading the article many times, but could never find the time to finish it until a few days ago.

The excerpt chronicles Bobby Kennedy's internal dilemmas and his struggle to articulate why he should run for president and challenge his own party's sitting president. It brings into sharp relief the various private agonies stymying the potential candidate, his wife, his sister-in-law (Jackie Kennedy), his brother and the sundry friends close to the family. JFK's assassination is preying on their minds. They wonder aloud and privately if the same fate will befall Bobby Kennedy.

The part that resonated with me the most was the description of a nervous Kennedy starting his speech in front of a mixed crowd at KSU (some adoring, some hostile):

As Kennedy began, his voice cracked, and those near the stage noticed his hands trembling and his right leg shaking.


He told the K.S.U. students that their country was “deep in a malaise of the spirit” and suffering from “a deep crisis of confidence”—the kinds of phrases that no politician has dared utter since President Carter was pilloried for speaking of a national “crisis of confidence” during his notorious “malaise speech,” in which he never used the word “malaise.”

Kennedy opened his attack on President Johnson’s Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. “Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public,” he said. “I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”


I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration.

Kennedy’s apology elicited the loudest cheers of the morning so far, perhaps because these students appreciated hearing an adult admit to a mistake, or because they too had once supported the war and Kennedy’s mea culpa made it easier for them to admit that they too had been wrong.

As I was reading about this campaign from 40 years ago while being fully obsessessed about the campaign this year, it was hard to escape the parallels - issues of race (much more raw in Kennedy's time, of course); the pall of a war gone bad hanging over the electorate; the inspirational campaigns run by two young, appealing senators; the reluctance of the party establishment to embrace their candidacies; the undercurrent of fear for their lives; the yearning for change that had gripped a tired population.

The photographs accompanying the article (from Bill Eppridge's A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties) are a wonderful bonus. A web-only slideshow of 17 photographs is here.


Anonymous said...

I liked the anecdote of RFK's apology for the war, and how the initially hesitant audience grew to like an honest candidate. It's a stark contrast to Clinton's non-apology apology. Had she been so forthright right from the start she could have reduced Barack Obama to a Gene McCarthy (and we would have had a good parallel to 68). But, of course, she missed the who "change" platform
and also a number of other chances along the way to define her candidacy.

Sujatha Bagal said...

I had a similar thought. I could not come up with the name of a single contemporary politician that would have apologized that way.