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1 Local Warehouse US History- Kennedy, Robert

This title in other editions

In Love With Night the American Romance

by

In Love With Night the American Romance Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter One: An American Dream

At some point, without ever quite intending it, American liberals, and even many conservatives, fell in love with Robert Kennedy. Like most improbable love affairs it surprised them at first. But they learned to accept, and then embrace, it enthusiastically. In the process the younger Kennedy has become, more than his brother John, more than Franklin D. Roosevelt, the liberal icon.

To this day, decades after his death in 1968, politicians scramble for a piece of him. Bill Clinton, in his first presidential campaign, declared himself to be a "New Democrat" in the Kennedy tradition, and on the eve of his inauguration made the pilgrimage to Arlington Cemetery to kneel at Robert Kennedy's grave. In 1998 he reassured like-minded party centrists that "a lot of what he said and did prefigured what we have tried to do in our time." To this claim leftist Democrats insisted that they were Kennedy's true heirs. In Robert Kennedy's house are many mansions.

Over the years Kennedy has become the inspiration for a powerful legend. Millions believe that he embodied a new kind of liberalism: compassionate yet strong, supportive but not indulgent. And they are convinced that if he had made it to the White House, which both he and they considered his rightful inheritance, he would have transformed America. He remains the standard by which millions measure, and find wanting, today's politicians. "The yearning for Robert Kennedy — or somebody like him," a reporter wrote wistfully twenty-four years after his death, "is an open wound in some parts of America."

But why is there such yearning, and why should it focus on him? The nation is not experiencing any great crisis, and has not since the Watergate episode in the mid-1970s, and arguably not since the Vietnam War. Furthermore, Robert Kennedy is a curious figure for the role of messiah. He was attorney general for only a thousand days and a U.S. senator for not much longer. He is not remembered for any single great achievement during that time. When admirers look back upon his career they speak more of what he would have accomplished than of what he actually did. He was a receptacle into which a dissatisfied people have put their frustrated emotions and longings.

Yet this has in no way diminished his impact. "He inspired us to believe...that there was an opportunity to change this nation and the way we relate to each other," said Tom Bradley when he was mayor of Los Angeles. He was the "...last major white politician black people seriously heeded," opined Time magazine on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. "He seemed to be a friend of life's victims." For the critic Jonathan Yardley there was "...no single individual whose death has left a more lasting and mysterious sense of unexplored promise." And to Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America is said to have awakened John Kennedy to the shame of poverty in affluent America, "he was a man who actually could have changed the course of American history."

Such a man and such an impact deserve to be taken seriously, not only as history but also as a living reality. How we see such figures governs the way we think about politics and what we demand from those who govern us. Great yearnings and deferred dreams make their impact. They convey a special kind of truth and shape our conception of what the future can be. Because he ignited so many hopes, Robert Kennedy, like his brother John, has become, in one writer's words, "part of the dream life of America."

But the dreams that Americans had about these two brothers were very different. JFK represented an imagined golden age, a fairy tale Camelot of dashing lords and lovely damsels. His death, like Oliver Stone's fantasy movie about him, brought about, in this schema, the darkness of paradise lost. Robert Kennedy, by contrast, has been viewed as a redeemer, one who came after the Fall, and so was scarred by the sins of knowledge and complicity but somehow able to transcend them — and in so doing to take a lost people with him. In this sense he held out the promise of paradise regained.

What makes RFK so contemporary, as well as so difficult to capture, is that he embodied contradiction. He was an ardent prosecutor who abused the law, a champion of black pride who allowed the FBI to torment Martin Luther King, a tardy critic of the Vietnam War who organized U.S.-sponsored assassination operations in the Third World, a fearless rebel who would not take on an unpopular president until another man cleared the way.

Despite these contradictions, perhaps in part because of them, he is remembered today by millions of Americans with an affection and an unfulfillable longing unlike those accorded any other politician. He has clearly touched something deep in the American psyche. His brief career as a politician during the years between JFK's death and his own evokes a time when it was possible to believe that a single person, by the force of his character, could change the world.

That he died before this could be accomplished, or even seriously attempted, has only added to his stature. He has become a legendary figure into whose promise we can read our unfulfilled hopes and ambitions. We have mythologized him. His life has become part of ours. As the New York Times stated editorially on an anniversary of his death, his story is "a version of the old legend of a knight who purifies himself through great suffering to prepare for a holy quest." Whether that quest was the presidency, the Kennedy Restoration, the transformation of American society, or a personal redemption is shrouded in ambiguity.

Much of Kennedy's allure lies in the future conditional: in what he would have been, what he would have done. Millions are convinced that had he lived and become president, he would have quickly ended the Vietnam War, brought black and white Americans together, alleviated poverty and discrimination, and achieved a more just and humane society. He is the symbol of the politics we presumably could have had. In the words of his Senate speechwriter, Adam Walinsky, he was "the last major leader who allowed us to at least imagine we could realize the ideals of American politics." It is not surprising that politicians pay him such homage, because they want to be identified — if only by association — with those ideals.

His advocates have always had a problem in relating the aggressive, vengeful, "ruthless" (to use the descriptive adjective he was never able to shake) Kennedy to the image of the gentle, caring, sensitive man who ostensibly emerged following John Kennedy's death. They give several reasons to explain the parallel existence of these two Robert Kennedys.

One, the most common, is that he was "transformed" by his brother's assassination, that the shock of that event caused him to reevaluate his life and become a different person. The great drama of Kennedy's life, Marshall Frady has written, was "his striking translation during his anguish over his brother's murder from a somewhat fierce and simplistic and decidedly dubious figure into, it seems indisputable now, a spiritually deepened moral adventurer...."

A second reason, linked to the first, is that he experienced "change" and "growth" as a result of experience. By 1968 the former street fighter "...'Bobby' no longer existed," Garry Wills has written. "It was a deeply changed man who was running for office now. Depth had come to him, and with it indecision." According to his aide Richard Goodwin, Kennedy's encounter with personal tragedy forced him "to explore new worlds of thought and poetry, pleasures and the manifold varieties of human intimacy...almost as if he were deliberately equipping himself for a larger role, laboring to become worthy of succession to his romanticized vision of the fallen leader."

Others, trying to connect the vindictive, ruthless "old Bobby" with the caring, sensitive "new Bobby" whom they discerned in his later years, declare that he was a work in progress, that he was perpetually in flux, and that his development can be marked by "episodes," like Picasso's periods. Thus, in the words of civil rights aide Harris Wofford, by 1967 this "fundamentally different man...seemed to move by epiphanies." Or as biographer Jack Newfield has written: "He defined and created himself in action, and learned almost everything from experience....He was always in a state of becoming."

Such explanations, if true, are not comforting. Normally people are not reassured by the spectacle of elected leaders who "move by epiphanies" or are in a constant "state of becoming." What is interesting in a friend would be unsettling in a politician. But whereas writing about most politicians means examining their policies, with Robert Kennedy it means speculating on his motives.

To some he was sincere, compassionate, and idealistic, particularly in the last years of his life. To others he was calculating, rude, and unprincipled. To many he was both. He remained a mystery, even to his devoted followers, a man hidden by layers of anger and empathy, ambition and self-doubt, impetuosity and caution, opportunism and idealism. John Kenneth Galbraith has described this much-observed man as perhaps "the least known figure of our time."

There is something mysterious and also novelistic about him: the rich man's son who became a saint to the poor and the neglected; the law enforcer who claimed that he yearned to be a revolutionary; the fanatic for righteousness who embraced forces of evil; the little brother who believed his destiny was to succeed the man he had sought to serve; the ruthless warrior enshrined in memory as the prince of peace.

Robert Kennedy cannot be seen or understood apart from his older brother. They form a historical diptych. Nearly as large in death as they were in life, these two Kennedys, so near and yet so distant from each other, dominate a decade that left its mark on everything that followed: on war, patriotism, and America's place in the world; on race, poverty, and notions of justice; on sexual mores and social values. Between them they split the decade, with the politically conventional John rounding out the last years of the Eisenhower era and with Robert as a talismanic figure of the willfully irrational sixties.

The brothers are united in death, encased under the marble slabs and the eternal flame meant to symbolize their reign and evoke the awe accorded martyrs and fallen heroes. They lie together in Arlington Cemetery, where the nation's heroes are buried, on a hill with a splendid panoramic view of the White House, the Capitol, and the stately federal city across the broad river. They seem to claim the site as their due, though no other president, let alone a president's brother, is awarded such a place of honor in such an imperial setting.

John and Robert Kennedy are not only united in death, but defined by death. Their deaths immortalized them. They died, as it were, on the public watch, serving as officials elected by us. Indeed, both were killed on political journeys garnering votes for their respective battles for the White House as they were seeking our political mandate.

We mark the anniversaries of their deaths — not, as with Washington and Lincoln — of their births. We speculate more on what they might have done than on what they accomplished. Their lives were a welter of successes, compromises, and failures. But through death they have become everything we want to read into them.

In John Kennedy the American people recalled a world not as it had been — with Cold War scares and battles over racial integration — but one bathed in optimism and promise: a musical comedy Camelot. Robert rose from the tumult and violence of the sixties, but in his message of reconciliation many found hope that the clash of warring factions would be gently resolved. To an America that felt twice cheated by reality, John Kennedy represented the world that should have been and Robert the one that might come to be. Together they embodied the imagined past and the imagined future.

As with the Arthurian tale it evokes, the Kennedy legend has two parts: that of the good King John, his beautiful queen, and his faithful Knights of the Oval Office — and that of his tormented follower and surrogate son, Lancelot, whose quest for the Holy Grail to redeem the kingdom ends in failure and death.

The more interesting part of the legend resides in Robert rather than in John. This dogmatic and angry, yet empathetic man emerged from his brother, first as his indispensable helper, then as his imprisoned mourner, and finally as his determined inheritor and memorializer. Over the decades John Kennedy has become the imperial JFK and entered history, a statue that we honor. We smile when we think of him, charming manipulator that he was, and we feel good about ourselves for having chosen him as our leader.

But when we think of the scolding figure we call Bobby we do not smile. He was constantly reminding us of our failures and exhorting us to do, and to be, better. He makes us reflect on all things that, just maybe, might have been.

What actually would have been, had he lived to assume the office he sought, may be a different matter. The legend tells us that the vicious campaign manager and merciless congressional investigator became a moral explorer who discovered the shame of poverty and prejudice, that the military strategist grew anguished by the war he had helped implement and became the champion of the underdog and the despised — the candidate who could have transformed America, just as he is said to have transformed himself.

This is the Robert Kennedy of legend, and the man who millions believe held the key to the nation's political salvation. Politicians have promised for decades that they embody his ideals and can lead us back to the path from which we have strayed. But it may be that this new Kennedy was in part our own creation, that we fashioned him from our needs, and that what we came to mourn was little more than our "dream life."

The myth of Robert Kennedy has become so fused with the man that it is virtually impossible to separate them. The myth is composed of three braided strands. The first is the myth of Camelot, the belief in a golden kingdom that once existed and could be re-created by him if only we believed hard enough and turned away from false tempters. The second is the liberal myth, the assumption that Robert Kennedy embodied the motivating values of American liberalism and would have pursued them with passionate conviction if he had been elected president. The third strand is the rainbow myth, that he alone among all American politicians would have been able to unite the contentious factions within society — alienated blacks and angry white ethnics, radical leftists and timorous suburbanites, blue-collar patriots and beard-wearing dropouts — into one harmonious, progressive coalition. All three of these myths resist close scrutiny.

Overriding them all is what could be called the Bobby Myth. It is the belief that with his passing, in the words of one sixties activist turned scholar, "a promise of redemption not only passed out of American politics, it passed out of ourselves." Yet the notion that such a transforming experience as redemption can be found in the daily compromises of politics, let alone in politicians, is a disturbing one. Politics in a democratic society is about interest groups and deals, not about salvation. But this is the kind of speech to which some people are moved when talking about Robert Kennedy.

Historian William O'Neill described him as an "extraordinary human being who, though hated by some, was more deeply loved by his countrymen than any man of his time." This may well be true. Yet in politics, as in life, love is not always enough. And love, as we know, is often blind. That is why we need to look at Robert Kennedy not as an idol or a mythical figure but as a man who, like everyone else, was not always clear in purpose and pure in thought. If we view Kennedy this way we have a better chance of understanding him and what it is that we sought, and continue to seek, in him.

Copyright © 2000 by Ronald Steel

Product Details

ISBN:
9780684846217
Subtitle:
The American Romance With Robert Kennedy
Author:
Steel, Ronald
Author:
Steel, Ronald
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Subject:
Biography
Subject:
Leadership
Subject:
United States - 20th Century/60s
Subject:
Presidents
Subject:
Political History
Subject:
Legislators
Subject:
Political Process - Leadership
Subject:
United States - General
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20010111
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
8.43x5.53x.56 in. .45 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » US History » Kennedy, Robert

In Love With Night the American Romance Used Trade Paper
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Product details 224 pages SIMON & SCHUSTER TRADE - English 9780684846217 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , More than thirty years after his death, Robert Kennedy remains a potent figure in American mythology, a man equally revered and reviled. In In Love with Night, Ronald Steel looks closely at his character, his achievements, and his failures, to shed new light on the Kennedy legend. He delves into the contradictions of Kennedy's public persona — an ardent prosecutor who abused the law, a champion of civil rights who allowed the FBI to torment Martin Luther King, a fervent Cold Warrior who opposed the Vietnam War — and he uncovers the private man who calculatingly built his own legend and died before he was truly tested. In this passionate exploration of an enduring political icon, Steel also illuminates the turbulent sixties and the process of legend-making in America.
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