Kennedy’s lessons for Clinton, Trump

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Larry Tye Larry Tye (lar­ry­tye@gmail.com) is the au­thor of seven books, in­clud­ing “Bobby Kennedy: The Mak­ing of a Lib­eral Icon.” He will be at the An­napo­lis Book­store on Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m. (53 Mary­land Ave., An­napo­lis).

The more dis­traught we get about the name-call­ing, wall-build­ing tone of this year’s pres­i­den­tial campaign, the more it helps to re­visit a na­tional campaign of half a cen­tury ago that started out mired in a sim­i­lar mean­ness but then rose above it.

Amer­ica was as riven in 1968 as we are to­day. Then, it was over a war that roiled racially torn cities, and ten­sions be­tween the old and new in every­thing from elec­tion­eer­ing to hair­styles. The ques­tion was: Which pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rant could re­store both peace and har­mony? Was it the law-and-or­der types like Cal­i­for­nia’s gov­er­nor, Ron­ald Rea­gan, and its for­mer sen­a­tor, Richard Nixon? Or could it be Sen. Bobby Kennedy, whose fans imag­ined him rec­on­cil­ing war­ring fac­tions at home and in Viet­nam even as his haters saw him as a ju­ve­nile delin­quent in a suit?

Half­way through his open­ing pri­mary con­test in In­di­ana, Kennedy seemed to be stoop­ing to the terms of battle set by his right-wing op­po­nents. His bar­bers cropped closer his flow­ing locks. His sched­ulers added fac­to­ries, farm towns and whistlestop trains, and sub­tracted univer­si­ties. He started re­fer­ring to him­self as “for­mer chief law en­force­ment of­fi­cer of the United States” in­stead of “for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral,” and staffers stopped call­ing him Bobby, opt­ing for the more grown-up Robert or Bob. His stump speeches fo­cused on crime, hog prices and his love of Kokomo, Vin­cennes and other burgs whose names he could barely pro­nounce or remember. Even his clothes were toned down; cus­tom-fit suits from Lewis & Thomas Saltz Cloth­iers were re­placed by ones that “looked as if [they] had come off the rack of a small-town hab­er­dasher,” ac­cord­ing to one re­porter.

Some wor­ried that af­ter tai­lor­ing his mes­sages to his gal­leries, he now sounded more like Barry Gold­wa­ter than Bobby Kennedy — a charge that res­onated with younger staffers. But while there was no deny­ing that he was a politi­cian, he quickly demon­strated that he was far from the pro­to­typ­i­cal pan­derer. Any­one who knew him re­al­ized Kennedy had been a law-an­dorder man since his days chas­ing down rack­e­teers and mafiosi, just as he’d made Repub­li­can-style free en­ter­prise a cen­ter­piece of his bid to res­cue Amer­ica’s big­gest ghetto in Brook­lyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neigh­bor­hood. Ru­ral whites “don’t want to lis­ten to what the blacks want and need. You have to get them lis­ten­ing by talk­ing about what they’re in­ter­ested in,” Kennedy said in sid­ing with his older, more prag­matic ad­vis­ers. Yet he knew how is­sues like crime could be used as a wedge be­tween blacks and whites, poor and rich. So he made sure that ev­ery speech on crime in­cluded a call for jus­tice and that what he said to cham­bers of com­merce dif­fered in the se­quence, but not the ele­ments, from what he said in the slums.

Sim­ple even­hand­ed­ness was not nearly enough, how­ever. He’d seen too much of what was wrong, as well as right, with Amer­ica, and he’d never learned to mask his emo­tions. That meant mak­ing his au­di­ences squirm. He chas­tised col­lege kids ev­ery­where for not chang­ing the world and warned 800 med­i­cal stu­dents at In­di­ana Univer­sity that they’d have to foot the bill for car­ing for the poor.

Then he turnd on a lun­cheon of Civ­i­tans, a men’s ser­vice club. He took the req­ui­site ques­tions on gun con­trol and day­light sav­ing time, then he turned to his big­gest is­sue — “Amer­i­can chil­dren, starv­ing in Amer­ica” — and asked, “Do you know there are more rats than peo­ple in New York City?” Hear­ing guf­faws, he grew grim: “Don’t laugh.” He was telling his lis­ten­ers pre­cisely the op­po­site of what they wanted to hear; it was dem­a­goguery in re­verse.

And it worked, win­ning him not just In­di­ana and Ne­braska, but — on the night an as­sas­sin struck — the crit­i­cal state of Cal­i­for­nia. It was there that he boiled his campaign down to two sim­ple themes: end­ing the war and end­ing poverty. And it was there that he’d proven it re­ally was pos­si­ble to as­sem­ble a coali­tion that, in to­day’s terms, would in­clude the an­gry whites who em­brace Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clinton’s base of African-Amer­i­cans, His­pan­ics and lib­er­als.

The ’68 campaign had de­volved into a battle not just be­tween right and left, but be­tween de­spair and hope. And Bobby Kennedy seemed like just the tough lib­eral — or per­haps ten­der con­ser­va­tive — who could unite the coun­try.

Are you lis­ten­ing, Don­ald and Hil­lary?

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