Friday, August 28, 2009

As The Kennedy Legacy In American Politics Passes- Reflections Of An Old Leftist On Bobby Kennedy

Click on title to link to the Public Broadcasting System's "American Experience" episode on Robert Kennedy.

Markin Commentary-August 28, 2009

With the passing of Massachusetts United Senator Edward Kennedy on August 26, 2009 there is a palpable sense that a political era has passed in American bourgeois politics. That may be. There will be plenty of time to analyze that, for those so inclined, later. For now though this reviewer, as one who was born in Massachusetts and has been face to face with the Kennedy aura since early childhood, has a few comments to make, not on Ted Kennedy, but on the political hero of my youth his older brother, Robert. I am reposting two entries, “The Real Robert Kennedy” and “On Bobby Kennedy”, from last year, the 40th anniversary of Bobby’s assassination during his run for the 1968 democratic presidential nomination.

As for the late Ted Kennedy he probably went as far it is possible to do in professing the liberal capitalist credo inherited from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Admittedly, since the halcyon “Camelot” days of the early 1960s that has been a bar that has been progressively lowered. Nevertheless, on specific issues, we leftists could unite (and did), with the appropriate freedom of criticism that we needed to insist on as a condition for joint action, with Ted Kennedy. That, my friends, who may not understand is under the old principle of uniting with “the devil and his grandmother” for the good of our cause.

But here is the real “skinny” on Ted Kennedy from our prospective. When, and if, the deal went down and the existence of the capitalist system was on the line old Teddy would have been the last “liberal” defender on the last barricade of that system. And why not? It was his system. Somewhere to Kennedy’s left there was a great divide that he could not pass and where we would, of necessity, have had to part company on those barricades just mentioned. Enough said on Ted though today I really want to go back to my young and reminisce about Bobby. Again.

Posted on “American Left History”-July 17, 2008

*The Real Robert Kennedy- A Sober Liberal View From PBS's American Experience Series


Robert Kennedy, American Experience, PBS, 2004

It is somewhat ironic that at just the time that when presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, a recent addition to the Democratic Party pantheon of heroes and heir apparent to the Kennedy legacy, is claiming the nomination of the party that the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy during the presidential campaign of 1968 is being remembered in some quarters. That event holds much meaning in the political evolution of this writer. The Robert Kennedy campaign of 1968 was the last time that this writer had a serious desire to fight solely on the parliamentary road for progressive political change. So today he too has some remembrances, as well. This documentary from the Public Broadcasting System’s "American Experience" series only adds some visual flashes to those remembrances.

In a commentary in another space I have mentioned that through the tumultuous period leading to the early spring of 1968 that I had done some political somersaults as a result of Bobby Kennedy’s early refusal to take on a sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Moreover, I committed myself early (sometime in late 1967) to the reelection of Lyndon Johnson, as much as I hated his Vietnam War policy. Why? One Richard M. Nixon. I did not give Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent campaign even a sniff, although I agreed with his anti-war stance. Why? He could not beat one Richard M. Nixon. When Bobby Kennedy jumped in and Johnson announced that he was not going to run again and I was there the next day. I was a senior in college at the time but I believe I spent hundreds of hours that spring working the campaign either out of Boston, Washington, D.C. or elsewhere. Why? Well, you can guess the obvious by now. He COULD beat one Richard M. Nixon.

It was more than that though, and I will discuss that in the next paragraph. I took, as many did, Bobby's murder hard. It would be rather facile now to say that something of my youth, and that of others who I have talked to recently about this event, got left behind with his murder but there you have it. However, to show you the kind of political year that it was for me about a week after his death I was in the Hubert Humphrey campaign office in Boston. Why? You know why by now. And for those who don’t it had one name- Richard M. Nixon.

But let us get back to that other, more virtuous, political motive for supporting Bobby Kennedy. It was always, in those days, complicated coming from Massachusetts to separate out the whirlwind effect that the Kennedy family had on us, especially on ‘shanty’ Irish families. On the one hand we wished one of our own well, especially against the WASPs, on the other there was always that innate bitterness (jealousy, if you will) that it was not we who were the ones that were getting ahead. If there is any Irish in your family you know what I am talking about.

To be sure, as a fourteen year old I walked the neighborhood for John Kennedy in 1960 but as I have mentioned elsewhere that was a pro forma thing. Part of the ritual of entry into presidential politics. The Bobby thing was from the heart. Why? It is hard to explain but there was something about the deeply felt sense of Irish fatalism that he projected, especially after the death of his brother, that attracted me to him. But also the ruthless side where he was willing to cut Mayor Daly and every politician like him down or pat them on the back and more, if necessary, to get a little rough justice in the world. In those days I held those qualities, especially in tandem, in high esteem. Hell, I still do, if on a narrower basis.

Okay, that is enough for a trip down memory lane back to the old politically naïve days, or rather opportunistic days. Without detailing the events here the end of 1968 was also a watershed year for changing my belief that an individual candidate rather than ideas and political program were decisive for political organizing. That understanding, furthermore, changed my political appreciation for Bobby Kennedy (and the vices and virtues of the Democratic Party). That is the import of this well-produced (as always) portrayal of the short life and career of Robert Kennedy. If in 1968, with my 1968 political understandings, I stood shoulder to shoulder with Robert Kennedy my political evolution and his political past, as detailed here, have changed my perceptions dramatically.

This documentary highlights the close relationship between Robert and his older brother John starting with the Massachusetts United Senate campaign in 1952 (and that would continue in the 1960 campaign and during John Kennedy’s administration right up to the assassination). We are presented here, however, with the ‘bad’ Bobby who was more than willing to join Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare” anti-communist campaign and the anti-labor McClellan Committee campaigns against Jimmy Hoffa in particular. There is no love lost between this writer and labor bureaucrats like Hoffa (or his son) but a bedrock position then and today is the need for labor to clean its own house. What purpose does government intervention into the labor movement do except to weaken it? Bobby was on the other side on this one, as well.

Under the John Kennedy Administration Robert, moreover, played a key role in putting a damper on the early civil rights movement in the South (as well as putting a 'tap' on Martin Luther King at the behest of one J. Edgar Hoover), the Bay of Pigs decision and aftermath , the Cuban Missile Crisis confrontation with the Soviet Union and the early escalation, under the rubric of counter-insurgency, in Vietnam. As readily observable, where I had previously downplayed my opposition to some of Bobby's positions I now put a minus next to them. That is politics.

Finally though, I will frankly admit a lingering ‘softness’ for Bobby. Why? The late political journalist Jack Newfield one of the inevitable 'talking heads' that people PBS productions, a biographer of Robert Kennedy I believe but in any case a close companion in the mid-1960’s and a prior resident of the Bedford-Stuveysant ghetto of New York City, made this comment about a Robert Kennedy response to his question during a tour of that area. Newfield asked Kennedy what he would have become if he had grown up in Bedford-Stuveysant. Bobby responded quickly- I would either be a juvenile delinquent or a revolutionary. I would like to think that he meant those alternatives seriously. Enough said.

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