Washington Lawyer - August/September 2018 - 30
"The politician we remember
today was a man of action,
more than of ideas. He
respected wise people's good
ideas and surrounded himself
with those who had them,
and he supported and
listened to them."
Then the shocking news broke that the president had been shot in Dallas.
Everyone was stunned: In those days, killing Kennedys was a bad daydream
- unheard of, unprecedented. We never returned to the scheduled meeting.
We fled to the privacy of our homes and watched the awful events play out
on television. Our world - that chapter of it - was over.
RFK retreated from Justice for the most part. We on his staff returned, uncertain
of our futures. I worked on Sargent Shriver's task force to establish the Office of
Economic Opportunity, as a delegate from Justice. RFK agonized over what to
do next in his life, one that would not now be defined by his brother. Eventually,
he decided to run for the Senate from New York City. He called me one night
at my home as I was having dinner with my wife. Would I come to New York
as one of his speechwriters?
"When?" I asked. "Now," was the reply.
"Could I come in the morning?" I asked, stunned by the call to action. The next
day after meeting with him, I resigned from the Justice Department while at the
campaign headquarters at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where I lived until
The night after the victory celebration, when Kennedy beat the popular
Kenneth Keating, the small coterie of RFK's staff met at the Democratic headquarters in New York. Over dinner we were asked what we wanted to do next.
Most enlisted for Kennedy's Senate staff. I didn't want to do legislative work, and
assuming Kennedy would soon run for president, I decided to do something
outside government, but be ready to rejoin his next campaign. That dream
ended on June 6, 1968.
The politician we remember today was a man of action, more than of ideas. He
respected wise people's good ideas and surrounded himself with those who
had them, and he supported and listened to them. Like Churchill, RFK preferred
to "pass . . . from the tossing sea of cause and theory to the firm world of result
and fact." Ironically, in this respect he resembled his political enemy, Lyndon
Several groups believed in RFK - young people; blacks who doubted him
earlier but came to embrace him; people in Europe, Africa, and Asia; labor
leaders such as Cesar Chavez; cab drivers in Staten Island, New York; and even
many supporters of Alabama Governor George Wallace.
When Governor Wallace campaigned for the presidency in 1968 in 20 northern
and Rust Belt states, Martin Schram, then a young reporter for Newsday in
30 WASHINGTON LAWYER
Washington, D.C., covered his campaign.2 Schram was surprised that many
Wallace supporters, blue-collar and union people, had backed RFK up until his
death. Schram asked them what made them switch their allegiance to Wallace,
an odd connection in his mind. Their responses then are hauntingly similar to
what we have heard from Trump supporters in the past year: "He has guts." "He
says what he means." "He is strongly critical of the political establishment." Of
course, the fundamental difference between the two unlikely candidates was
that Wallace exploited his political independence for his racist purpose, while
RFK used his maverick candidacy to advocate for more progressive positions.
Wallace had reached the dark side of an angry populace. Kennedy reached the
inspirational side of a larger populace that included some of those who later
In New York, Senator Kennedy sought out the needy in Bedford Stuyvesant
while some comfortable and vocal critics on the Upper West Side fretted over
his credentials. When he was killed, his influence was growing exponentially,
though he was still short of reaching his political pinnacle. This shy man had
become a "rockstar" and the screaming public flocked to him and his causes.
Norman Mailer was prescient when he claimed that "Bobby Kennedy may
be the only liberal . . . who could be a popular defense against the future
of the Right Wing . . . the Democratic Party is . . . bankrupt of charisma; the
Right Wing has just begun." The man liberals had distrusted had become the
country's most progressive politician, a national leader in matters of social
justice and peace.
Louis Menand, the brilliant New Yorker essayist, offered interesting insights
about RFK. In a changing time in American history, RFK "transformed himself,"
Menand wrote, "from a calculating infighter . . . into a kind of existentialist
messiah." Menand suggested that RFK had the ability to "reflect back to
whatever voters projected onto him . . . could rouse audiences to a frenzy,
and he could make hardened politicos weep." He had "experience, intellect
with heart . . . street sense with vision," Menand continued, which is why "he
appealed to disparate voters, union workers, farm workers, inner city African
Americans." His aura was "unswerving and ascetic."3 Kennedy's impromptu
speech to African Americans on the night the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
was killed was touching, heartfelt, and reflective of a wise and caring man.
No speechwriter wrote those words for him.
GONE TOO SOON
Had RFK - then 42 years old - walked a different route out of that California
hotel after his primary victory speech a half-century ago, he would not have
met his devilish fate. Instead, I believe, he would have followed his brother to
the White House. When this "kind of existentialist messiah" died, so did the
unique possibility he presented to America at that volatile and changing time.
The Vietnam War would have ended much sooner, and so many lives and so
much economic costs would have been saved. There would have been no
Watergate, and a next generation would have been excited, not cynical, about
working for the government. When RFK died, Menand wrote, and I agree, so
did "the seeds of whatever future America he carried within him."
Ronald Goldfarb is a regular contributor to Washington Lawyer.
1 Robert F. Kennedy, The Enemy Within (1960).
2 Martin Schram, Newsday, Washington Bureau, October 10, 1968.
3 Louis Menand, "Lessons From the Election of 1968," The New Yorker, January 8,