Can it be only ten years now since American society stood ready to be acted on by the Kennedys?
Well, and if we find ourselves inclined to the utterance of such banalities as this, we cannot be entirely to blame. So much of everything connected with the two brothers—young, graced, and doomed—came to us in an aura of domestic “triumph” and “tragedy”; so much about them was larger on the scale of drama than we were equipped to lend our workaday credence to; so much event, public and private, so much public and private passion—and so concentrated in time—that we could almost not respond to the Kennedys at all without calling on the prescribed and stylized sentiments shaped in the childhood reading of fairy tales and in that adult sense of existence whose ultimate, and ultimately banal, expression is paranoia.
Nor can one take the measure of how we were affected by those two victorious penultimate Kennedy moments we witnessed with our very eyes, both of which ended in a death by gunfire. To put it simply, Dallas, November 22, 1963, happened to a nation unwilling to believe in the reality of political assassination. No matter that Americans had within a century already lived through three successful Presidential assassinations and several other attempts (philosophy has long stood humble before the problem of the workings of experience on belief). And Los Angeles, June 4, 1968, left behind a significant part of the nation—if not, secretly, all of it—ready to believe very nearly anything in our political existence possible. If the Kennedys have provided us a permanent legacy, this suspension of disbelief might well be it.
And what indeed—inescapable banality again—of those to come? What will they make of a decade so much of whose political fact and fancy must depend on the by then forgotten? How will they understand, for instance, their vast inheritance of highways, bridges, airports, monuments bearing the name of a President in office for less than three years (in the course of which embroiling the U.S. in the most unpopular war to date) and of a former Attorney General who had served out not quite four years of his first term as junior Senator from New York? Very likely there will be no problem; people tend to accept the heated pieties of the past as simply a given of the historical environment.
For us, however, there is still a settlement with these ten years to be made—sanity itself may demand one, certainly any kind of perspective on what has actually been going on in this country does.
Though they have not been all of the decade just ended, and though the settlement with them is by no means the only one to be made, the Kennedys have hovered over the 60’s in a unique way. Many of our public pleasures were determined by them, many of our greatest public problems were bequeathed by them, and many of the period’s attitudes—including those assumed by Lyndon Johnson—had reference to them. For the brief time they were in power, John F. Kennedy and that circle of family, employees, political allies, and friends who after his death were to be dubbed the Court-in-Exile did a good deal more than constitute themselves a new administration. In fact, they swamped the national consciousness. Their arrival in the White House in January 1961 very quickly came to be seen as not a changeover but a breakthrough of some kind. Out of power, they succeeded in becoming a Sword of Damocles hanging over Washington. Johnson’s most dangerous opposition, for example, was understood to be not the Republicans, not the Southern recalcitrants, but the Kennedys. Out of the mess of an assassination that might have been thought to spell the demise of much more than their now fallen leader, the Kennedy clan somehow managed to impose his two surviving brothers as a certain token of the future. Being a company town, Washington is a fine web spun out in an incredibly delicate tangle of personalities and professions; and many, we may imagine, were the politicians, publicists, and hopeful bureaucrats assessing the width and depth of the channel that now separated them from the waiting pretender.
In a way, the Kennedys’ peculiar hold over the times became all the more potent as it receded into the realm of the potential. Both remembered from the past and portending the future, they could serve as a general, highly flexible standard of invidiousness with the present.
This last point is an important one. American history will have little call to thank us for the decade past, particularly its second half, and more particularly, I believe, that area of it where in the end the Kennedys made their most powerful effect: its social imagination. How would anyone engaged in the effort to place them be able to establish their centrality to the period and at the same time leave them without responsibility for any of its nastiness? This very problem has been occupying many minds, ingenious, ingenuous, inflamed, or just plain vulgar, for some time now.
Actually, the first serious attempt to establish the Kennedys as at once decisively influential and in the literal sense of the word inconsequential—it seems now a truly prophetic attempt because who could then have foreseen how very much nastiness there would be for which to be blameless?—was launched immediately after the death of JFK. In 1965 we were presented with two mammoth inside accounts of the Kennedy administration: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days and Theodore C. Sorensen’s Kennedy, which invited us to believe that the United States under JFK had passed through three decisive years in which everything, and yet strangely enough, almost nothing, happened. Both books frankly admitted to partisanship (although Sorensen’s somewhat more frankly than Schlesinger’s)—after all, both men had been employees and intimates of the President they memorialized. And both, though in very different ways, set a pattern of apology that would prove of lasting value to the Kennedy movement in the years ahead.
That Schlesinger and Sorensen should have been rewarded with best-sellerdom was to be expected: never in living memory had people been so obsessed to know the inside story of a serious public figure, transmogrified from tough politican into movie star into faery prince into martyred hero in hardly enough time for anyone to have arrived at a measured judgment of even one of these personae. In addition, there was a secondary point of great interest, in the authors themselves. For they were precisely a part of what seemed most significant and novel about their subject. In other words, they were Kennedy intellectuals, among that breed of men who had not found their way into the heart of government affairs since the early 30’s (and even then, it was suggested, not quite the same breed and not quite to the same extent). The authors’ relation to Kennedy was one of the very things everyone wanted to know about him.
Schlesinger and Sorensen reported with absolute unanimity on the essential characteristics of Kennedy’s Presidency. It was a Presidency very nearly unprecedented in its power to rouse, to mobilize, to harness, to initiate talents, hopes, energies, ideas, and commitments. Kennedy’s Washington, moreover, was a place which had virtually overnight been swept clean of its Eisenhoweran cobwebs, so depressing and enervating to the whole society, and flocked to by some of the cleverest, most adventurous, and best-trained minds in the country—minds to be seen at work through lighted office windows night after night until the wee hours, and at play in the ambience of the most exquisite décor, food, and conversation since, easily, the end of the 18th century. Thus Schlesinger:
Intelligence was at last being applied to public affairs. [Italics mine—M.D.] Euphoria reigned; we thought for a moment that the world was plastic and the future unlimited.
Never had girls seemed so pretty, tunes so melodious, an evening so blithe and unconstrained.
Though unanimous in what they wished to evoke, the two authors were operating from very different literary purposes. Sorensen’s book is purely the work of an earnest servitor and ends less as a real memoir than a kind of open-ended campaign tract, with candidates and offices left to be designated. Schlesinger—being the far more intelligent of the two, and a historian with a theory of American politics—evinces some awareness of the prior question to which his book must supply an answer. He sets out to answer in advance, as it were, future objections to his having assigned John F. Kennedy a place in that great Democratic party pantheon of Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
One thing becomes absolutely clear in both accounts: to run a government is great fun, maybe the best fun on earth. This ought to be a point too obvious to need making—at the base of any mythology of human existence there being the knowledge that men will kill and die in order to be so privileged—but it is a point often obscured in the cant of those who have already been given their turn. A special quality of the Kennedy administration was the way it took its pleasures openly and was thus able to communicate them to the rest of us. We thought of Washington, mirabile dictu, as one of the gay places.
But if Washington had been transformed, we were not on that account to have expected any ensuing wonders. For Kennedy’s Presidency as described by Schlesinger and Sorensen was on the other hand a perpetual process of discovering its almost unbelievable powerlessness to make a material effect with all the talents, energies, ideas that it had roused, mobilized, and so on. In the face of public prejudice and Congressional hostility—simply, as Schlesinger put it, “how intractable the world was”—Kennedy was found to be a man beset and crossed at every turn. (Sorensen, who unlike his fellow author had no benefit of years of solid work on the New Deal behind him, was able, in a series of lectures delivered at Columbia University while Kennedy was yet alive, to ascribe this powerlessness to the office of the Presidency itself.) His first important lesson in this regard, of course, came with the Bay of Pigs. Many others were to follow, particularly in the fields of civil rights and poverty. Correspondingly, his bright new Washington was also a nightmare of bureaucratic prerogatives and traditions, entrenchments, and resistances, which fairly clanked at the least whisper of an unaccustomed motion. Thus all the sound and fury created by Kennedy and his new talent in the years 1961-63 was an earnest of how our government was being restored to the plane of high principle; and all the nothing it concretely signified, as far as new legislation, new federal programs, or—something for which we have not even yet begun to assess the price to be paid—foreign policy, were concerned, betokened the inevitable obstacle of practical politics.
To boil the proposition down to plain language, we were asked to judge Kennedy as President by his intentions rather than by his achievements. Now, this is not a particularly outrageous request, especially coming from two employees of his administration and in the aftermath of his bitterly premature and shocking death. Nor does it much matter that this claim upon the world’s trust is normally pressed in behalf of the weak, almost never in the name of someone wishing to be regarded as better and braver than the average run of men. Elective politics is a field whose highest wisdom is thought to reside in the art of navigation between announced intention and actual behavior; voters are as conditioned to the idea as politicians. In the case of John F. Kennedy, however, his supporters were asking something for themselves, something of which this instance was only to be the first of a long series: that we take their word for it.
The truly interesting question about the Kennedy administration, though, is not what did it accomplish but what, in the words of Oscar Gass, “did these people want.”
For besides elegance and gaiety, that which preeminently characterized the New Frontier was a kind of swashbuckling, an arrogant lack of principle. By “lack of principle” I do not mean that anybody was an especially unprincipled individual. Anyway, only children or idlers level such charges at political leaders. What I do mean is that Kennedy and his “best and brightest people in the country” swooped down on the White House and tackled its problems in the spirit of the belief that these problems continued to persist only because the “right” people had never before been let loose on them. How much there was to be undone and cleared away: the work of Truman hacks and Eisenhower dullards, an inert State Department, not very bright generals, a bunch of small-time tacky Congressmen. And who could conceivably be better for the job? This spirit accounts in part, probably in great part, for the enormous new élan they brought to Washington. “. . . They aspired,” Schlesinger tells us, “like their President, to the world of ideas as well as to the world of power.” “Ideas,” in Kennedy parlance, meant proposals for programs to initiate—a perfect technocratic definition of the term—and if there was a distinction to be made in anybody’s mind betweeen a new proposal and a genuinely new policy, Schlesinger, who normally does understand such a distinction, gives no indication of it. (There were, of course, those study sessions in MacLean, Virginia, with guest lecturers offering their views on philosophy and art.) The Alliance for Progress—the adaptation of a new posture and a new rhetoric to Point Four—serves as a notable example of one such program; the Peace Corps serves as another—a genuinely original but hardly earth-shattering move in the same direction as above; and a third, painful at the moment to mention, was the tooling up of the American military for counter-insurgency warfare.
Lack of respect for, lack of imagination of, the genuine difficulties—and yes, even the genuine convictions—of one’s failed predecessors is the first mark of what I have termed arrogant lack of principle. Its base lies perhaps in snobbishness, perhaps in a parochial lack of that curiosity which for educated men spells cultivation of spirit, certainly in a hunger for power that can be fluidly and comfortably wielded. Among other things, the New Frontiersmen swept through the offices of duly elected representatives of the people—some of them duly elected and reelected for nearly as many years as their interlocutors had been alive—and with a tough-minded political-science knowledge of the low calling of the legislator, made a shambles of White House-Congressional relations.
The other side of the swashbuckling was a deadly caution. Nor was caution a contradiction, but rather in the fullest sense a complement, of New Frontier auto-intoxication. Any possibility for a greatness of record, as distinguishable from high style and intention, Kennedy avoided. He took no real leadership except in foreign policy, and even there it was largely a matter of making a personal impression and establishing personal relations. He was instead an avid reader of the temper of the times. In some cases he badly misread that temper—for example, the degree of impatience among Negroes with the pace of progress in civil rights and the degree of impatience in the country at large with anti-Communism as a guiding principle of foreign policy—and lost opportunities already prepared for him. He had attained the White House by the narrowest margin and naturally wanted to stay there through his allotted eight years. What tiny margin of popularity he had, had followed on a campaign in which the major stated issue between him and his opponent was that he was the better man, that he would “get the country moving again.” His mandate was thus undefined, and he set out to fulfill it, as he incomparably did, exactly as promised: by being the better man. And his New Frontiersmen in turn set out to fulfill their mandate from him by constituting themselves, throughout the Executive, a group appearing to be the most dashing and creative public officials ever. Here, indeed, was where the fun lay, for all of them, and, directly and indirectly, for the rest of the country.
What the Kennedy administration wanted, then, what it sought to do, was to impose an image of itself on American society and American history: an image of itself as the rightful, by virtue of intrinsic superiority, American ruling class. And in this endeavor it was unquestionably successful.
The Kennedys out of power, by which I mean, of course, out of Washington—and by which I also mean not only the two surviving brothers but their family connections and respective and intersecting retinues—are in their way even more interesting than the Kennedys in power. For at this point intention becomes all, and the only measure is that of intention against intention.
If the New Frontier had established itself in the public mind as the vanguard of our rightful ruling class, then John F. Kennedy at Dallas was our fallen king. New Frontier Washington had ceased to be London or Paris and had, with a hint from the now Dowager Queen, retroactively become “Camelot.” In a funeral egregious for its well-researched pomp and full panoply of made-up historic gestures, from the televised widow’s kiss bestowed upon the decked coffin to the lighting of a permanent gas flame at the grave (after all, we had never buried a king before), we buried him and set about speculating as to whether and when the heir apparent would make his move.
Later we learned that for some months after his brother’s death Robert Kennedy had gone through a “crisis”—which seems, from what one can gather, to have been a depression. How, then, could we have known about Robert Kennedy that which he himself may not have known, or acknowledged to himself, at the time: that he would inevitably, some time within the next ten years, make a bid to take his brother’s place? I do not think it was mere cynicism in us. Thoughts of Robert Kennedy’s Presidential possibilities, usually in the form of insinuating jokes but perfectly serious for all that, had begun to circulate soon after John Kennedy’s move into the White House. The Kennedys had been brought up to be President. That much we had known at the outset. Their father had decreed it—if not one son, then another, and maybe all in turn. These extraordinary brothers were obviously quite unlike, and yet we knew, though how dreadful and precise a prediction that knowledge would turn out to be no one ever dreamed, that they could if necessary be interchangeable. Robert was the second oldest eligible Kennedy, therefore clearly the next Kennedy attempt at the Presidency would be his.
This is not at all a “nice” idea, neither about the Kennedys nor about us as citizens and voters; nor does it even provide a pleasant family picture—quite the opposite; nevertheless, the idea that the name Kennedy was a collective, a dynastic name, was not without its own very powerful appeal. For one thing, it was honest, and honesty about the dream of being superordinate, particularly when personified in so aesthetically acceptable a way, can have the effect on people of freeing them from one of their grosser anxieties. For another thing, this vision of the family with its ranks of retainers closed all about it—it called itself, or we called it, the Kennedy Machine, the most efficient instrument for conducting election campaigns in memory, many experts said—had a longed-for quality of intimacy. Sitting Presidents have no doubt always been subject to the public’s curiosity about the details of their private lives. But the process by which they became candidates for the Presidency had come to seem very distant and baffling, the arcane manipulation of party factions and leaders whose terms of negotiation could only be sorted out by those highly trained and experienced, like anthropologists translating some elaborate native ritual. The Kennedys with their Machine made it all seem simple and personal again. Getting to the White House, or anyway getting the chance to get to the White House, was the result of the absolute determination to do so combined with the means to bend whatever forces necessary to one’s will. “No damned nonsense,” as Lord Melbourne once happily remarked of the Order of the Garter, “about merit.”
And so by the time Robert Kennedy—certainly a far more important and singular figure at the start of his candidacy than his older brother had been at the same stage—was only two months dead, there was hardly a whisper of skepticism about the necessity for brother Teddy’s being next to try. The only question was, now, on such short notice, in 1968—or four or eight years from now?
On the day Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to withdraw from the 1968 campaign, Senator McCarthy is reported to have said, “Now Bobby will have to run against his brother Jack.” This remark was thought by many to have been nasty and bad politics as well. But like so many things the inscrutable Senator has said, it sounded merely clever and was profoundly true. Except, of course, that Bobby had actually been running against Jack, probably by instinct, since at least 1965.
How could he have done otherwise? The issue at stake was not simply Vietnam (which had been left by the New Frontier at least in an arguable condition). The issues were the new black militancy, urban blight, poverty, guns or butter, the spreading insidious influence of the military: all matters that a Democratic junior Senator from New York had to make his political property—if not he, who?—and several of which had been preempted by Lyndon Johnson with a speed and effectiveness that must have been, to put it mildly, embarrassing. Robert Kennedy had staked out his claim on the New York Senate seat in virtue of his name and his need for a base of operation. To those among his future constituents who had come to revel in the stylistic glories of Kennedy Washington, his campaign had smacked of the promise that Camelot would for as long as necessary be relocated in Manhattan. To others it had promised an infusion of spunk and energy into a state party crippled by inanition. There was in the very nature of things nowhere for Robert Kennedy to stand, or at least to appear to stand, but to the Left of Lyndon Johnson. Which meant, since Johnson was already so busily and so successfully dispelling the myth of the powerless Presidency, two steps to the Left of his brother—and of his own former self.
Robert Kennedy is a far less easy figure to deal with than his brother: because he was in himself less easy; because he died only a candidate to be a candidate; and because, running against himself and therefore needing some mythic explanation, he provided such perfect material for the wholesale mythicizing of others. Upon meeting him after he became Senator, one’s leading impression of him was that of a certain unnameable vulnerability. Several of those who knew him well pronounced him shy. But to call a politician shy cannot have reference to the same quality called by that name in ordinary people. In the case of Kennedy, suspiciousness was probably the better word. Though as a future Presidential contender he was found by his well-wishers to be a tender, suffering, reflective man, in his earlier role as JFK’s right hand, he was said to be ruthless and rough-playing, a watchdog ready to spring at the slightest scent of an unwanted intrusion. Neither of these characterizations seems apt somehow, though something of each was visible in him. But a high degree of suspiciousness would fit, and account for, both.
Possibly the watchful vulnerability to be read in Robert Kennedy’s face was the result of his discovery in Dallas that politics was a more final and serious business—as final and serious as war—than he had been taught to bargain for. Electing his brother President had been a thoroughly professional enterprise. Step followed step, plan followed plan, without any real hitch. Electing himself Senator had proceeded in the same way. But in between had come the knowledge that one could be killed; the profession had become a vocation. He must at this point have needed to believe that there was some reason beyond the reinstitution of jolly times for him to offer himself up to it. What must that reason be?
At any rate, he was not lacking for people with reasons of their own to help in the supply. Most of the original Kennedy court, one by one resituating themselves outside the precincts of Johnson’s fiefdom, became available to him. For many of these, there is some evidence to suppose that he had but to take up where they had, as a group of associates, left off, only this time from the further vantage point of Lyndon Johnson’s mistakes. For some whose overriding passion was to settle the war he was a logical figure around whom to organize a crusade: for he could command the numbers and the national political machinery to turn their still amateur movement into a seriously contending force. Finally, and perhaps decisively—though now, of course, we will never know—there were those who sought for him to become America’s new prophet of social change. His connection to New York with its inevitable leftward drift brought into his entourage young men self-consciously speaking for the so-called radical culture of the young. Preeminent among these were two named Adam Walinsky and Peter Edelman, having in common with one another and with what sociologists would call their age-cohort that peculiarly serene assurance about the correct wholesale application of the epithets good and bad, moral and immoral, progressive and reactionary, which has come in the aftermath of 1968 to be the sole divining rod of something termed the “New Politics.”
It has often been said of the young Robert Kennedy that he hated liberals and hated above all to be thought of as a liberal. No doubt the term was associated for him with all the prissiness and sissiness for which one’s life could be made pure hell in the American prep school (not to mention in the household and on the playing fields of Joseph P. Kennedy). History had blessed him, then, by presenting him with the need to move Left at precisely the moment when to do so would place him in a company highly congenial to his old contempt for liberals: the young, the militant, the righteous, and the generally restless.
Now once again, as we were with his older brother, we are left with a rich posthumous record of Robert Kennedy’s personality and intentions. In the brief year and a half since his assassination, book has followed book in a seemingly regular succession: the story, ending in the midst of a primary campaign, is briefer, easier to summarize, and even more susceptible to the superimpositions of the tendentious. Once again, that is, we are asked to take the word of those in a personal position to know.
But unlike John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy has been handed on to us in, roughly speaking, three personifications: Bobby the dutiful, Bobby the suffering, and Bobby the bold. Each of these is, naturally, the protagonist of a separate book, in keeping with the author’s own politics. There is the portrait by Theodore C. Sorensen,1 who wishes to claim Robert Kennedy for the greatness of some ongoing Kennedy tradition—and in which the author (again) enjoys some small measure of reflection. There is the one by Jack Newfield,2 who wishes to claim Robert Kennedy for the militancy and moral virtue, if not the precise ideology, of the New Left. And there is the Robert Kennedy of David Halberstam,3 a Bobby whose wit and wisdom have carried him beyond the stale and corrupt conventions of Democratic party politics into the promise of some new national purpose.
About Sorensen’s book, one hardly has the heart to speak, for it is not, as was his book about John F. Kennedy, a serious piece of work. As its title, The Kennedy Legacy, implies, it is merely an attempt to establish the apostolic succession; and thus Robert Kennedy is simply a man who grew older and bigger and finally old enough and big enough to receive the Holy Dispensation. Sorensen does not scruple to announce, for instance, that the rather elaborate network of personal styles and talents and public postures he chooses to characterize as the Kennedy “legacy” is nothing less than “the most important body of ideas in our time.” Apart from what this reveals about Mr. Sorensen’s notion of an idea—let alone an important body of them—the passage signals that in 1969 its author feels no more need than he did in 1965 to justify the Kennedys by much more than the mention of their name.
Informed gossip has it that Sorensen’s was the main negative voice in the Kennedy Court’s discussion as to whether or not Kennedy should enter the race against Johnson in 1968. Now, there is no reason to doubt, as certain very angry Kennedy defenders do, that in urging him to be moderate about the war and to stay out of the race, Sorensen had Kennedy’s own best interests at heart. He was not, after all, hired to be a confessor but a political adviser. As it turned out—as it turned out for many others in that fateful year—he was a very bad one. Political-mindedness at that moment in history was not only not an inspiriting or uplifting spectacle, it was not clever politics either. Sorensen devotes a good deal of effort to exculpating himself for the mess that was made of the peace candidacy by Kennedy’s behindhandedness, and the results of this effort are also not only not pretty but not clever. For in what has now become established New Frontier tradition, he cannot simply admit a mistake—surely the cleanest and surely also the most unanswerable way of disposing of a bad record.
Sorensen’s mode of dealing with the past is worth dwelling on because it is not his alone. His formulation with respect to his role as a Kennedy adviser follows exactly the formulation of most of the other denizens of Camelot—and not the least among them Robert F. Kennedy—with respect to U.S. involvement in Vietnam: namely, I was right to begin with, and when I changed my mind, or had it changed for me, I was right still. Any opponent of the war who happened into certain enclaves of the Court-in-Exile as late as 1966 is bound to remember the absolutely withering jovial contempt in which he was held as the woolly-minded adherent of a politically hopeless position.
An early and consistent opponent of the war might also, had he been ingenuous enough, have experienced some puzzlement at the idea of a successful alliance between Robert Kennedy and certain factions of the Young Left. He was, as Jack Newfield recounts, the Attorney General against whom they organized civil-rights demonstrations. He was by his own account one of the architects of the Cuban Missile Crisis, whose successful negotiation by the Kennedy administration the peace movement could not find it in its heart to forgive. He made no forthright public statement on Vietnam until 1967. And surely, if any man had been seen working within the limits of the “system” that the young professed so mightily to abhor, that man was Robert F. Kennedy.
For his left wing, then, those rallying behind the Kennedy who could “turn the country around” with his special gift for communion with the disaffected young and blacks, the dilemma posed by Eugene McCarthy was especially poignant. And its resolution is given the crudest, and therefore the clearest, exposure in Jack Newfield’s book. Being perhaps the most dedicated contemporary practitioner of that very old-fashioned art called agit-prop—whose most salient characteristic has always been its utter unembarrassment either with fact or with niceties of perception—Mr. Newfield is able in a perfectly unembarrassed way to make of Kennedy a man with no relation to his own history. Once upon a time, Mr. Newfield’s story goes, there was a bad old Robert Kennedy, who had worked for and been friendly with the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and who had been Attorney General under John F. Kennedy. Then, quite suddenly, there was a new Robert Kennedy, taught by the assassination of his brother that there is evil in the world, especially in the United States, taught by his own suffering to care about the sufferings of the poor and the young and the black, learning to read poetry and becoming—in the phrase that offers a just tribute to the level of Mr. Newfield’s literacy—“an existential hero.” Actually, this new Robert Kennedy is a man no serious person in his right mind would wish to vote for. He is full of moral certainty and on the other hand troubled with painful indecisions, insecurities, and dark nights of the soul; he is precipitous in the adoption of new ideas and on the other hand pushed this way and that by the judgments of those around him. Above all, he undertakes to seek office not out of a keen appetite to have it but out of a sense of deep moral obligation. (That is, I think, precisely why the book was so warmly greeted by many of Kennedy’s professed admirers: Newfield evoked for them a man very much as they themselves might wish to be—a perfect antipolitical fantasy.)
Not that Kennedy could have been anything but profoundly affected by the assassination of someone so close to him and someone so obviously beloved. Even just the experience of being suddenly cast out into the cold—of being, as it were, orphaned—and having to make one’s way back into the world again would teach any man a profound lesson about the arbitrariness of fortune. Nor could anyone operating merely from political motive have succeeded so consistently in being a white hero to the blacks or an adult hero to the kids. But the discontinuity between the two Robert Kennedys proposed here serves another purpose than merely to further our understanding of the self-evident. It is the key to a much more general assertion about the nature of political virtue: no man can be lacking in virtue, as in Newfield’s view Kennedy was in the 50’s and early 60s, and still have deep human feelings; and conversely, no man can opt for such virtue and still conduct himself as an ordinary political animal.
In this conception, the radical Robert Kennedy was continuous with his former self in only one respect—his freedom, early and late, from the taint of liberalism. This freedom, bred precisely in Kennedy’s original conservatism of temper and outlook, makes it possible for him to attain to a politics “Beyond Liberalism.” Never having struggled against the Stalinists in the 40’s and 50’s as did “Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther, Irving Kristol, and Irving Howe,”4 Kennedy was free to operate with a mind uncluttered by a lot of stale cold-war claptrap.
Nor is there any evidence of discomfort at offering such an analysis of a man who had worked for Joe McCarthy, and had participated in the decisions to invade Cuba and to contain the Viet-cong on grounds of the domino theory. For the purpose of this analysis is not so much to excuse the past as to sketch a present in which Robert Kennedy and his most prominent constituency might be liberated from any of the standard liberal claims of the organized labor movement, the responsible civil-rights movement, and even the group of his prematurely dovish fellow-Senators.
Finally, there is David Halberstam’s Robert Kennedy, the central figure not of a politics beyond liberalism but of liberalism redefined. This Kennedy is most assuredly a man one would wish to vote for. To begin with, he is attractive, vital, and sure enough of his powers never to be unduly solemn. Then, too, he is actually a politician—he comes from somewhere, has a history which remains his own, and makes decisions on a balance between commitment and political advantage. Like the hero of Sorensen’s account, this Kennedy is a man who had grown; but the growth was not into worthiness to occupy an already prepared position but rather into a new position, based on a concern for new issues.
The new issues to which the newly-grown Kennedy addressed himself are not quite precisely specified. Yet it is impossible not to know what they are, for they constitute—Richard Nixon notwithstanding—a significant part of the temper of this time: in addition to Vietnam, there are the blacks and the poor and there is the unrest of the middle-class young, and the orientation derived from them is toward a “new” militant localism.
Yet the truth is that the Kennedy who as Attorney General was found wanting in sensitivity to the urgency of Negro demands and the Kennedy who as Senator rushed in to reconstruct the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto—in the process very nearly destroying the recently developed and delicate political tissue that might at last have brought that community some genuine political leverage—were not so very far apart. Both were acting mainly from advice as to what would and would not wash. And both were unable, partly from a brash unconcern for the needs and experiences of others, partly from what might have been a simple shortcoming in intelligence (if indeed the two are not the same thing), to gauge the likely consequences of their policy. (It is interesting to note that nowhere in the accounts of him over the last six years is there the record of an attempt to assess, quite simply, the measure of Robert Kennedy’s intelligence. Even now, perhaps, the observation sounds a little shocking: after all, an informed and experienced mind has not for well over a century been among the requirements for even a great American leader. But these are, as the past six, and particularly the past two, years have amply illustrated, extraordinary times.)
The “new” issues in American society, and the “New Politics” they are widely believed to have generated, extend beyond the problem of Robert Kennedy himself. The term “New Politics” came into currency more or less about the time of the 1968 Democratic convention and at first provided a useful shorthand symbol for the Young Turks of the combined Kennedy-McCarthy camps in their dealings with Hubert Humphrey and his backers and allies: an outgrowth, no doubt, of the name “New Democratic Alternative,” itself the polite term for “Dump Johnson.” To begin with, then, a New Politician was a Democrat opposed to a Democratic war and hoping to take sufficient control of the party to bring about a reversal of its Vietnam policy. Today, of course, a New Politician is something different. He is a man engaged in proving himself worthy to inherit the Kennedy mantle—the setback suffered by Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquiddick having left the position at least temporarily open.
Exactly how the term was enlarged and subtilized to include some and exclude others would make a fascinating study in the manipulation of public speech—a subject that has long been begging for study. Suffice it here to say that Eugene McCarthy, for example, is not really thought to qualify for New Politician—his followers in effect having constituted themselves a separate party—while Edmund Muskie is by some latest report at least being considered. In any case, the Whig court appears to be assembling to import from other shores the monarch who will prosecute their Glorious Revolution.
Insofar as anything is genuinely new about the new issues, it is that they constitute the sleight of hand by which all but the last few ugly scenes of the decade—the riots since Martin Luther King’s assassination, revelations about the corrupting power of the Pentagon, above all, Chicago—are made to disappear in order that we may start over again. The new of 1972 is to be the new of 1960.
The 1968 campaign of Robert Kennedy served both him and his fellow New Frontiersmen as a means for dissociating themselves from the actual record of John Kennedy’s administration (a) without experiencing any loss of the mana attached to it and everyone in it; and (b) without, by definition, being disloyal to it. Ted Kennedy’s 1969 campaign against the military served the same purpose. Even the memory of JFK himself has been dissociated from that record without any very noticeable public outcry. About Vietnam, of course, the reply of the Kennedyites is: under Jack, if he had lived, things would have been different. Perhaps indeed they would; such speculations—though it is a crude and brutal thing to remind people of—are the single advantage of standing on the platform of a dead candidate. What matters, however, is that ten years later, and in the face not only of Kennedy’s disastrous decision to hold South Vietnam as a friendly power but of the overall decision behind it to pursue seriously a policy of containment in Southeast Asia, we are offered nothing more than a variation on his original campaign promise: he would have been the better man.
As part of their sleight of hand, the Kennedyites have managed not only to lift any vestige of blame from themselves but to lay rather handsome portions of it elsewhere. Arthur Schlesinger mounts an attack on Dean Rusk as if unconscious—certainly as if the reader were to remain unconscious—of just whose appointee Dean Rusk actually was. A former highly regarded Kennedy State Department official, and an intimate of Robert Kennedy’s, attacks the labor movement—“not worth the powder it would take to blow it up”—for being hawkish: seemingly unconscious—certainly as if the listener were to remain unconscious—that it might better behoove some opponent of the war other than a former State Department official to disdain this particular use of explosives. A former Assistant Attorney General under Robert Kennedy expresses outrage at the refusal of the American working class to shoulder the main burden of a program of speedy and costly reparations to the Negro. A former Assistant Secretary of Defense under McNamara scolds a conference of concerned liberals for showing too great a concern about the inequitable distribution of wealth in the United States and too little about the economic depredations of our huge military budget. And these examples are far from exhaustive.
In fact, the current campaign against the military-industrial complex merits particular attention. Our first warning against this encroaching blight on American economic and political life came, of course, from Dwight D. Eisenhower as he left office. It seems to have become a dire threat once more. Somehow the New Frontiersmen, in the vanguard of the movement to control the military, have been allowed to forgo mention of the fact that in the years 1961-63, under the tutelage of none other than Robert S. McNamara, that same military-industrial complex enjoyed an enormous if not a geometric rate of growth. Moreover, the reason it did so was that the Kennedy administration, upon taking office from its brinksmanship predecessor, found that our military force was not adequate and adopted what was called the “2½ war” strategy. This strategy called for a military establishment (and budget) adequate to the simultaneous waging of two major wars and one minor one.
Thus the New Politics is simply Kennedyism afloat without the anchor of an individual Kennedy. The line seems to have run out, at least for the moment, with the youngest son. In attempting to apply to a matter of personal scandal the public-relations techniques by which his brothers had remained perpetually blameless for their errors of public policy, Teddy and his retinue discovered for us the limits of those techniques. He called together the soldiery of Camelot and made a speech to the public about courage; but he was no longer the darling princeling, having after his brother’s death become the liege and lord—and America was, momentarily, no longer a monarchy.
Many adherents of the New Politics would dispute its inevitable connection to Kennedyism. David Halberstam, for instance, would apply the categories of old and new by the standards of 1968 and primarily on the issue of the war; he would thereby be inclined to find much of the New Frontier old. But the war will one day be over, and the Democrats will one day make their bid again, and things will then be divided in a rather different way. Members of Robert Kennedy’s and Eugene McCarthy’s youth contingents would surely dispute the connection of the New Politics to Kennedyism, holding the old Kennedy court to be just another manifestation of the Establishment they affect so to despise. But the innocents among them neither understand properly what the phenomenon of Kennedyism is nor wish to analyze the implications of what they themselves are currently advocating.
Kennedyism is the assertion of the right of those properly endowed—by education, upbringing, leisured high purpose, and, yes, by birth, if need be—to rule. The New Politics, even for the “kids” who find other names for it, is the assertion of the right to be ruled by attractive men, morally attractive, aesthetically attractive, in a morally and aesthetically attractive society. Both create the political ambience in which it is more suitable to speak the language of class: to speak of an individual man’s “instincts,” his “style,” his “sympathy for,” rather than to engage in a hard and clear examination of whose interests are being served by a given political impulse. And both create, though their adherents refuse or pretend not to know it, the vision of a political future which for a democracy cannot be a vision of openness, fluidity, but just the opposite. Theirs is the stuff from which Establishments are really made.
The demand to be ruled in an attractive way is a reactionary demand—regardless of the radical rhetoric in which it may be couched. The alliance it bespeaks between the privileged and the lumpen and against the coarse-grained and sometimes brutal equalizing of the middle is nothing new to the history of Western politics—though the extent to which it has taken hold is new indeed to the history of 20th-century America. This alliance was only prefigured in the elegant romp of John F. Kennedy through Washington; it attained to a full embodiment in the Presidential primary campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. In between spanned most of the 60’s, a decade not the least of whose ironies will turn out to be that in the midst of a reckless turbulence sometimes called “revolutionary,” and explicitly egalitarian in its ideology, American society was solidifying within itself as never before a body of sentiment more properly attached to a truly hierarchical social order enjoying the grandeurs of empire. The furthering of social welfare came to reside in the call for such things as a religious change of heart, or the application of special standards of conduct and competence to our colonial wards, the blacks, or private philanthropy to the poor. Men of the common stripe were called to return to their former happy status as villagers, looking out for their own affairs and resting content without the undue interventions of government. The children of the upper middle class cried out in their universities for some institutionalized mark of their privileged estate.
Perhaps America is indeed settling into the spiritual condition of a great conservative imperial power. If so, the lesson of the 60’s and of the Kennedys is that it has taken no bloody-minded or profit-greedy class of imperialists to lead her into that condition.
1 The Kennedy Legacy, Macmillan, S52 pp., $6.95.
2 Robert Kennedy, a Memoir, Dutton, 304 pp., $6.95.
3 The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, Random House, 224 pp., $4.95.
4 The list, I swear, is Newfield's own, reproduced in full.