It has been nearly forty years since Robert F. Kennedy left the White House and returned to private life. How different the world would be now if Bobby hadn’t stepped into the gap that President Lyndon Johnson left, when he announced he would not seek re-election in 1968? Thankfully, we will never know.
I first met Robert Kennedy in 1954. He was the chief counsel of the Investigations Committee, chaired by Senator John McClellan. I was fortunate enough to have been placed on his staff as an investigator. We became fast friends, believing that any problem could be conquered with hard work and determination. I must admit a bias; I am a great admirer of Robert Kennedy. As Arthur Schlensinger another Kennedy friend, has written “No one can be as much fun as Robert Kennedy, no one is more appealing, with impulses of irony, bravado, gentleness and vulnerability so curiously intermingled in his vivid personality.” No one in politics, I believe, could have lead us out of the turbulent Sixties, intact and stronger as a nation.
As I mentioned earlier, we shared good and bad times, the death of his brother President John F. Kennedy and his own election five years later. Though out it all Bobby kept his focus on the future of the country, unlike others, who now concern themselves with their place in history. Robert Kennedy challenged America in the Sixties and Seventies. His vision and courage were an inspiration to a divided nation in the Sixties. The words he spoke in 1964 at the University of Mississippi are still challenging Americans, especially the young Americans, today.
“Your generation, south and north, white and black. Is the first with the chance, not only to remedy the mistakes which all of us had made, in the past, but also to transcend them. Your generation, this generation, can not afford to waste its substance and its hope in the struggles of the past. beyond these walls is a world to be helped, and improved, and made safe for the welfare of mankind.”
A Time to Run
Robert Kennedy was quite happy being a Senator from New York. Although there were members of the Democratic Party and Robert’s staff, myself included, who wanted him to challenge Johnson. Kennedy did not want to be seen as hurting the party by challenging President Johnson, but the moral pressure was rising. He had been speaking out against the war in Vietnam and had been working to empower minorities. As his friend Jack Newfield wrote, “If Kennedy does not run in 1968, the best of his character will die. It will die every time a kid asks him, if he is so much against the Vietnam War, how come he is putting party over principle?”
To Robert Kennedy principle was important. In 1966 he went to Delano California to hold subcommittee meetings regarding the National Farm Workers Association strike involving migratory grape workers. The dialogue between the local sheriff, who came before the committee to explain his manner of keeping the peace, and Kennedy was insightful. it showed both the wit and wisdom of Bobby at his best.
Kennedy: Do you take pictures of everyone in the city?
Sheriff: Well if he is on strike or something like that.
Kennedy: Why did you arrest forty-four of Chavez’s men who were engaged in a
Sheriff: If you don’t get them out of here, we’re going to have to cut their hearts
Kennedy: This is a most interesting concept . . . How can you go arrest somebody if
they haven’t violated a law? Can I just suggest that the sheriff reconsider
procedures in connection with these matters? can I suggest during the
luncheon period that the sheriff and the district attorney read the
Constitution of the United States?
By the end of the day Kennedy had embraced Cesar Chavez. The support and respect was returned in kind. Chavez warned us that , “He (Kennedy) shouldn’t go too far because it will only hurt him.” It was this determination to right wrongs that drove Bobby on, and it was his hard edge that disturbed the establishment. Someone who is not afraid to say what needs to be said, or do what needs to be done, will always be considered dangerous by the establishment.
After much soul searching and discussion Kennedy decided to announce he would seek the nomination of his party for president. Although the Democratic leadership railed against his candidacy, among those Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia who stated, “Bobby-come-lately has made a mistake. There are many who liked his brother, as Bobby will find out, but don’t like him.” Yet among the people Kennedy lead in opinion polls 44-41 over Johnson.
The first campaign stops were both a surprise and a success. The people mobbed Bobby, tearing at his hair, clothes and face, all wanting to be part of the event. At the University of Kansas and Kansas State, Kennedy’s speeches drew loud cheers and applause from the students, many of whom we thought supported the efforts of the Johnson Administration. Kennedy warned of the dilemma of the war, “In these next eight months we are going to decide what this country will stand for and what kind of men we are.”
By the end of March Kennedy had visited sixteen states. Frenzy followed everywhere. In Nashville, he once again challenged the Johnson Administration’s Vietnam policy and the effect it was having on the country. “When we are told to forego all dissent and division, we must ask: who is truly dividing the country? it is not those who call for change, it is those who make present policy. That policy has driven young people to abandon their public commitment of a few years ago for lives of disengagement and despair, turning on with drugs and turning of America.” Kennedy had once again touched a nerve. The establishment decried Bobby’s attempt to blame Johnson for the drug problem and even some supporters felt these attacks on Johnson were coming too early in the campaign.
Regardless, on March 31st , President Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party. With Johnson gone the race focused on Kennedy and Eugene McCarthey, with Vice-President Hubert H. Humphery waiting for the proper moment to announce his candidacy. McCarthey had hoped Johnson’s withdraw would slow Kennedy momentum, without the war as a driving force, he believed Bobby had lost his wedge issue.
In reality it gave Bobby the opportunity to address the issues of race and the troubles of the inner city. Kennedy could now focus on the underclass and concentrate on fighting for the underdog, not against the establishment. No politician on the scene had done more to help the plight of the forgotten. From fighting segregationist governors in the south, to helping the migrant workers in the west, to reaching out to the dying cities in the north and east, Robert Kennedy had done more than just talk about it, he had been there. The opportunity to discuss solutions to the problems facing America fueled the campaign and the candidate.
Bobby believed that the answer to the problems of the inner city rested in the inner city itself. He had discussed this issue in To Seek a Newer World, “To rely exclusively, even primarily, on government efforts is to ignore the shaping traditions of American life and politics. To ignore the potential contributions of private enterprise is to fight the war on poverty with a single platoon, while great armies are left to stand aside. In my judgment, the lack of private enterprise is the principle cause of our failure to solve the problem of employment in urban areas.” Though tax incentives and private ownership of public housing, employment, pride and hope would spring up from suffocating ghettos.
On April 4th, as we boarded a plane to take us to Indianapolis, Bobby was informed that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. The mayor of Indianapolis felt it would be dangerous for Kennedy to speak at the ghetto location that had been picked. When we arrived the news was worse, King was dead, shot by a white man. Kennedy was determined to keep his rendezvous. As we entered the ghetto, the police escort left.
The scene is forever etched in my mind. The Kennedy banners fluttered in the cold wind. The crowd was in a festive political rally mood. They had not heard the news of King. Robert climbed onto a flatbed truck parked under an old oak tree. Kennedy’s face was pale, hair blowing in the wind. He stood hunched, as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and he looked at the gathered crowd.
“I have some sad news for you, for all our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.” The festive crowd of people gasped and screamed in shock. What followed was perhaps Robert Kennedy’s greatest speech.
Only interrupted by brisk wind gusts, he spoke of the common dreams and of common hope, “But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, and want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.”
The campaign hit a rut, the death of King brought home the memories of Dallas and the apprehension many had about Kennedy’s run for office. The loss of the Oregon primary added to our cloud of worry. Yet Robert never doubted, and the loss of Oregon energized him and we headed into California. All of Kennedy’s hard work and effort paid off on primary day. He won both California and South Dakota.
Those victories assured Kennedy the nomination at the convention in Chicago. In closing his victory speech he hit on the themes that would drive the fall campaign, “What I think is quite clear, is that we can work together in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States over the period of three years, the division, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between poor and more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, is that we can work together.”
As we took a short cut though the kitchen of the hotel to leave, a gunman named Sirhan Sirhan, stepped out and pointed a pistol at Bobby’s head. Everything moved in slow motion. Sirhan squeezed the trigger and the barrel of the gun began to move. I reached out for Bobby, my stomach in knots. From the corner of my eye I saw Rosy Grier and Rafer Johnson lunging at the assassin. The gun miss fired, Grier and Johnson wrestled Sirhan to the ground and took the gun. I was bowled over by secret service agents protecting Bobby, who was rattled, but unharmed.
Kennedy later commented, “Obviously, we plan to make our victory parties less exciting in the future.”
The First Hundred Days
After Robert Kennedy’s sweeping mandate in November, his Administration hit the ground running. First on the list of President Kennedy’s agenda was removing the United States presence from Vietnam. The Administration set about negotiating a ceasefire between the warring factions in Vietnam and “direct talks between South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front.” The goal was for both parties to set a timetable for free elections, similar to the original agreements of the mid to late fifties. Negotiations through the proper back channels with China to end their participation and supplying arms were also successful. The United States would begin the immediate withdraw of troops in June; with all troops home by December 1970.
Secondly, President Kennedy submitted legislative proposals to Congress to reform the welfare system. Fearing that, “of all the programs and services that have stripped the poor of dignity and treated them as a nation apart, public assistance is foremost. To obtain welfare aid, the price is too often a broken home and illegitimacy. in most states children can receive help only if there is no man in the house.” Kennedy believed that by creating tax incentives in the inner cities for private enterprise and employment opportunities, this would allow families to stay together and give the poor an opportunity to succeed.
The creation of Community Development Corporations was the centerpiece of the President’s inner city legislation. “These corporations would ensure that what is done to create jobs and build homes, builds the community as well, and builds new and continuing opportunities for its residents. These Community Development Corporations, I believe, would form a fruitful partnership with industry.” By letting communities improve themselves with little government interference, not only would the development meet the needs of the people, but a sense of community pride would stop the wanton destruction of the neighborhood.
President Kennedy also believed that families and individuals should be given incentives to save and invest. Just as his brother had done at the start of the decade, Bobby lowered tax rates for all citizens. This was designed to spur the economy and create employment opportunities for the returning Vietnam Veterans.
Robert also impaneled a committee of citizens to submit proposals to the Congress regarding racial matters. Rather than have rhetorical sessions that would accomplish little and create a wedge issue that would hurt the country, Kennedy decided to put this task in the hands of those it would effect. The panel consisted of Coretta King, George Wallace, Andrew Young, Cesar Chavez, Reverend Billy Graham and I. Our committee would consider solutions that could be practically implemented to end discrimination.
President Kennedy realized that his political honeymoon would be very short if his Administration appeared to be standing still on these issues. The first hundred days involved a lot of arm twisting and personal contact by the President. We all knew that not only the success of the Administration was on the line, but the future of the country was also at stake.
Bobby spurred us on during this hectic period by often reciting a line of poetry or two during our Cabinet meetings. The favorite was from Tennyson, and it carried us through the first hundred days and beyond;
Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.