Fifty years ago Robert Kennedy was murdered as the White House seemed within his reach. Greg Wright examined the politician’s life and enduring legacy.
VISITORS to Arlington National Cemetery are inevitably drawn to the eternal flame that marks the resting place of President John F Kennedy. Kennedy’s majestic grave has been a place of quiet pilgrimage ever since he was murdered in Dallas in 1963.
A short distance away lies a more solitary slab and white cross. It is the grave of his brother, Robert, who was murdered exactly 50 years ago, as the road to the White House appeared to be opening up before him. Robert Kennedy was shot just after his greatest political victory, and ever since, admirers and critics have wondered what sort of America might have been shaped by his Presidency.
Hopes were high that change was coming to America on the night of June 4, 1968. Robert Kennedy, who had promised to “tame the savageness of man”, had triumphed in the California primary, which gave him a real chance of securing the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Presidential election of 1968.
“We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country,” he told the crowd at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Minutes after leaving the stage Kennedy was shot by a drifter called Sirhan Sirhan. He died in the early hours of June 6, 1968, aged just 42 years old.
Along with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Kennedy was the most high profile victim of the turbulent and revolutionary year of 1968, which, ironically, ended with the election of the arch-conservative Richard Nixon. In 1968, Americans might have chosen Kennedy and hope. Instead they got Nixon and Watergate.
In the earlier stages of his career, Robert Kennedy had appeared to be a ruthless enforcer for his older brother. Along with JFK, he had faced down Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile crisis and he remained an implacable opponent of Communism. His role as US Attorney General in the early 1960s is still mired in controversy.
However, after his brother’s death, Robert went through a period of introspection and re-examination. He travelled to South Africa to fearlessly challenge the architects of apartheid. After meeting starving children in Mississippi, he was deeply traumatised, and exclaimed to a friend: “You don’t know what I saw! I have done nothing in my life!”
His decision to run for President in March 1968, appears to have been prompted by a complex range of factors; he had been angered by what he saw as President Lyndon Johnson’s inept handling of the Vietnam war and he was also enraged by the White House’s dismissal of a report which blamed “white racism” as the cause of racial unrest in the inner cities.
During his 85-day Presidential campaign, Kennedy ventured where his rivals feared to tread. He campaigned in the heart of black neighbourhoods. He was also unafraid to challenge his audience. When a group of medical students asked him who would pay for his national health insurance plan, Kennedy told them: “You will.”
Dr Rachel Williams, a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Hull, believes the contradictions and tensions within Kennedy’s life and career make him an endless source of fascination. She says: “On one hand he was a ruthless anti-Communist, but on the other a devout Catholic and devoted family man, a man some laud for his moral integrity, but whom others hate for his role in FBI surveillance of civil rights leaders like Dr King. His decades in the public eye make him a fascinating case study for exploring the human side of politics – how one’s personality and personal story influences one’s actions and behaviour on the political stage.”
To Dr Williams, Kennedy’s career illustrates that not all power corrupts. It suggests that public service can make a person more critical of the world around them, and open their eyes to the problems facing society.
She adds: “Kennedy grew up in a privileged family, and was more or less destined for politics because of his father’s history as ambassador to the UK, and his older brothers’ ambitions. The further he got into his political career, however, the more aware he became of the real power he had to bring about change.”
Nowhere was this more apparent than his anger at the abject poverty he witnessed in the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere in the South during the 1960s.
Much of this poverty was concentrated in African American communities, who had, in theory at least been liberated by the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965.
Dr Williams says: “His commitment to tackling the structural inequalities which trapped black Americans in poverty is, for me, the strongest theme to come out of his ill-fated presidential run. This is particularly striking, because in his guise as his brother’s attorney general he had been conservative on the issue of Civil Rights in the 1960s. He definitely underwent a radical transformation in the final three years of his life – and this is what accounts for the sense of hope and anticipation which surrounded his candidacy in 1968, and for his popularity among young people and African Americans.
“This transformation also applies to his increasing opposition to the Vietnam War; a war, arguably, he and his brother helped escalate.”
She adds: “His off-the-cuff eulogy for Dr King on the night of King’s assassination is spine-tingling in its sincerity and beauty.”
In a speech in Indianapolis on April 4, just after he had learned of Dr King’s murder, Kennedy quoted the poet Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Dr Kostas Maronitis, a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Leeds Trinity University, believes Kennedy’s campaign of 1968 can still serve as a political textbook.
He says: “First, RFK became the master of re-invention. Not only did he manage to maintain a critical distance between the Kennedy dynasty, nepotism and political power but he also left behind the image of the conventional American politician, whose action is determined by law and order crusades.
“Instead, he developed a political agenda defined by civil rights and social justice. Second, he understood that popularity and electoral success can be achieved by building bridges across racial, class and generational divides. Unlike his contemporary Richard Nixon, and our contemporaries Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, RFK did not identify a specific group of people as the enemy within, but instead focused on poverty and civil rights for the reunification of the American population.”
Dr Williams believes that Kennedy as President might have been able to quell some of the chaos of the late 1960s.
She adds: “One thing is certain in my view: for all his flaws and human weaknesses, Robert Kennedy would not have found himself mired in a Watergate-style scandal of the type that took down the man who did win in 1968.”
In his last public words, Kennedy’s compassion shone through.
Dr Williams said: “As he lay dying on the floor of the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, he is reported to have asked one of the people who ran to his aid: ‘Is everyone else alright?’”
“His brother Teddy summed it up in his eulogy, calling him “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.”
Kennedy’s biographer Evan Thomas, wrote: “Kennedy’s life story suggests that had he failed, he would have failed trying his utmost to lift up the poor and the weak.”
Something to ponder as you stand at the foot of Robert Kennedy’s grave.