One of haves, RFK connected with have-nots
WASHINGTON — Television’s remembrances of Robert Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his death this week have brought back images of the huge crowds he drew, both in life and in leaving it. They mobbed and cheered him as he motored through big-city streets and then stood in stark silence along the railroad tracks as his remains were brought from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac in Northern Virginia.
Perhaps more so than any other American politician who never attained the presidency, he somehow established an emotional connection with the nation’s have-nots, real or merely self-perceived. He did so although he himself was a product of wealth and American political royalty.
In support of his late brother who did achieve the presidency, he was often harshly single-minded and determined to the point of being labeled “ruthless.” But in private he could be congenial and considerate, even with the critical press corps of the time.
During the 1968 Indiana presidential primary against rival Gene McCarthy, he traveled the route of the state’s Wabash Cannonball famed in song. We reporters aboard mischievously serenaded him and his wife, Ethel, with our own version.
One stanza noted that “from Boston to Virginny, and New York by the way, the blacks in Gary love him, the Poles all fill his hall; there are no ethnic problems on The Ruthless Cannonball.” Another told of him buying up McCarthy’s campaign train “on the other track, ’cause money is no object on the Ruthless Cannonball.”
On a later occasion, during the one primary he lost in Oregon, I privately asked him why he thought his campaign was struggling. He noted the absence of his usual black-and-blue-collar constituency in this heavily white-populated state. At the next and last primary state, California, which he won, it turned out in droves.
On the eve of the primary there, he appeared to cut back somewhat on street campaigning, not out of fear, though the setting off of fireworks as he rolled slowly through San Francisco’s Chinatown was unnerving. It was always a risk in rousing up the crowds to the point of a white backlash.
Once, accompanying him in a riot-torn downtown Washington black neighborhood on the heels of Martin Luther King’s assassination, an elderly back woman came up to him, asking: “Is that you?” Then: “I knew you’d be the first to come, darling.”
Campaign aide Dick Goodwin, who died recently, once told me: “It was not so much what he said. They detected the same intensity in him a lot of them had.” Fred Dutton, another aide who was at Robert Kennedy’s side throughout, noted: “He identified with people who hurt. Maybe it was because he hurt,” referring to the deaths in his own family.
Ted Kennedy observed: “People who have to live so much by emotions, who depend on their own feelings, can see sincerity in others. He felt deeply about the things he talked about, and he showed it. They could tell he meant it.” And later: “The campaign personalized and intensified his concern. It happens in campaigns. I saw it happen before, with my other brother.”
Those of us who were regular reporters traveling with Robert developed a relationship that often challenged our objectivity. Some scribbled on their press credentials “Junto Viajamos” (Traveling Together) as a kind of de facto fraternity, and the candidate often chided us about it.
On one flight on an old propeller plane, he sat in the rear with us as it rumbled down the runway. The pilot suddenly jammed on the brakes, saying over the intercom that he hadn’t achieved sufficient speed for takeoff. To the reporters, Kennedy wisecracked: “If we don’t make it the next time, you fellows are going to wind up in the agate!” The reference was to the tiny print used in the summaries at the bottom of baseball stories.
But in the end there was nothing to joke about. Robert Kennedy’s premature death deprived a generation of Americans of all races, ethnicities, ages and genders of a powerful voice of empathy and hope. It is needed more than ever today, in a current era of crass and self-aggrandizement at the highest levels of our national leadership.
Jules Witcover can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.