Copyright © 1998 by David Reitzes
Robert Francis Kennedy had been propelled towards the 1968 presidential nomination since January 1966. With the mood of the country still vehemently supporting the war in Vietnam, Kennedy rose in the Senate to predict, "If we regard bombing as the answer in Vietnam, we are headed straight for disaster."
It is a revolutionary world we live in. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments.
For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked for us.
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society.
-- Robert F. Kennedy
Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, just moments after winning the California Democratic primary. He died the following day.
"Maybe my first impression of him was that we both were, in a way, misfits," recalled boyhood friend David Hackett. "He was neither a natural athlete nor a natural student nor a natural success with girls and he had no natural gift for popularity. Nothing came easily for him. What he had was a set of handicaps and a fantastic determination to overcome them."
In 1951, at the age of 26, Kennedy had left an investigative position at the Department of Justice to organize his brother John's bid for the Senate. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., reports in his definitive biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), RFK had little tolerance for politics as usual: "One day when a leading labor figure sat chatting in the headquarters, as Massachusetts politicians were wont to do, Robert brusquely ushered him out: 'If you're not going to work, don't hang around here.'"
"Politicians do nothing but hold meetings," he was to say. "You can't get any work out of a politician."
Following the successful race, Robert had little desire to return to the Justice Department and the glory-seeking J. Edgar Hoover. Little did he realize. A Joseph P. Kennedy phone call to Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy got him a job on McCarthy's Senate subcommittee investigating subversive activities. But while Kennedy pored over shipping logs, investigating trade practices with Communist China, McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn set about smearing leftists and drumming up accusations of subversion against members of the State Department, the US Army, and anyone else who would guarantee headlines.
By March 1953, Kennedy'd had enough of McCarthy and the Committee: "I thought it was headed for disaster. I told [McCarthy] he was out of his mind and was going to destroy himself....Most of the investigations were instituted on the basis of some preconceived notion by the chief counsel or his staff members and not on the basis of information that had been developed....I thought [he] made a mistake in allowing the Committee to operate in such a fashion, told him so and resigned."
When the Committee's Democratic senators offered Kennedy a seat on the Committee as minority counsel, he promptly accepted over McCarthy's objections.
"Kennedy's job," Roy Cohn wrote later, "was to write out pertinent questions for the Democratic senators to ask at the hearings....in [one particular anti-Communist] plan he saw an opportunity to jibe at us. He fed his questions to Senator [Henry] Jackson, who used them to fire a barrage of ridicule....They picked at point after point in [the] plan, finding something hilarious in each. And every time Kennedy handed him something, Senator Jackson would go into fits of laughter."
Weeks of televised hearings provoked a similar reaction among viewers - when McCarthy and Cohn's ruthless partisan attacks weren't inducing outright revulsion. Robert Kennedy had been among the first to see McCarthy for the witch-hunter he was. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December, 1954.
In 1956, concerned over allegations of racketeering and violence by members of labor unions, Kennedy took a crash course in uncovering money laundering from accountant and Senate consultant Carmine Bellino. Bellino, intimately familiar with previous failed investigations, warned RFK, "Unless you are prepared to go all the way, don't start it."
Kennedy assured him, "We're going all the way."
He was soon appointed to a select committee on racketeering, where he developed the case against Teamsters leader Dave Beck, who was convicted of larceny and tax evasion in 1957 (and pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1975). The committee was less successful in prosecuting Beck's compatriot Jimmy Hoffa, who was eventually convicted on several counts of jury tampering and diverting Teamster funds for his own use in 1964 (and pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1969).
Though organized crime as we know it had existed in America at least since Prohibition, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover claimed it was merely a figment of the collective imagination. He was forced into an about-face in 1962, when Kennedy, now US Attorney General, exposed the existence of a national crime syndicate and began ardently prosecuting its members. His book The Enemy Within presented the results of his initial investigations.
RFK's resounding legacy, though, is in the domain of civil rights. Along with JFK he brought the first sense of justice for minorities to the White House - though, like many of their generation, the brothers were slow to grasp the monumental injustice of racism in America. "I won't say I stayed awake nights worrying about civil rights before I became Attorney General," Robert admitted, but "my fundamental belief is that all people are created equal." Specifically, he added, if local authorities refused to obey the Supreme Court's ruling on desegregation, "we will not hesitate to act."
His first acts were baby steps: ordering the FBI and the Justice Department to integrate their ranks, challenging private institutions to open their doors to minorities. But when push came to shove, as when Birmingham, Alabama authorities reneged on their pledge to protect Freedom Riders protesting segregation, the Kennedys called in the military to protect the protesters. It would not be the only such occasion.
Following the murder of JFK in November 1963, the grieving Attorney General found himself quietly edged out by the new President. When he set his sights on the Senate race in New York, the press quickly accused him of carpetbagging. But New Yorkers were glad to have him, and following his election, he moved swiftly to reform local politics and law enforcement just as he had on the national level.
"There aren't ten politicians in the whole state I like and trust," he told the Village Voice.
His overriding concern was shifting from civil rights in general to the specific issue of poverty. In a December 1964 interview he declared, "You could pass a law to permit a Negro to eat at Howard Johnson's restaurant or stay at the Hilton Hotel. But you can't pass a law that gives him enough money [to do so]."
He embraced the cause of not just black Americans, but all minorities, including Mexican Americans exploited for cheap labor under horrifying living conditions in upstate New York, Puerto Ricans stuck in crumbling Bedford-Stuyvesant ruins and Native Americans stranded on dying reservations. ("The 'first American,'" Kennedy said in 1967, "is still the last American in terms of employment, health and education.")
The 84% black, 12% Puerto Rican Bed-Stuy became one of RFK's top priorities. He challenged civic leaders to come up with new ideas for their communities; and in the neighborhoods without leaders, he called town meetings to address the problem.
He remained skeptical of traditional liberal panaceas such as welfare, which he regarded as "better than nothing," but no substitute for employment. He proposed a new coalition of resident-owned community development corporations employing local talent and utilizing local resources, with public funds only a supplement to private investment.
By bringing white-owned businesses into partnerships with minority communities, Kennedy helped revitalize Bed-Stuy with new housing and physical renovation, jobs and social services. Writing in 1978, Michael Harrington called the project "a modest success - which, in the context of so many failures, is to say a remarkable success."
But when Kennedy offered Bed-Stuy as a model for nationwide action, he met with resistance not only from conservatives - who often agreed with him ideologically but were afraid of alienating white constituents - but also from liberal Democrats who were more comfortable throwing money at problems than working hand in hand with local residents to solve them. With urban-revitalization legislation he'd fought for lying dead on the Senate floor, he grumbled to a reporter, "To them it's all just politics."
To provoke action, he undertook fact-finding missions to some of the most impoverished areas in the US, many of which seemed more akin to the Third World than to the America most of us know. One such trip took him to the poorest slums of Mississippi, accompanied by NAACP lawyer-activist Marian Wright. Wright initially believed Kennedy a mere publicity-seeker, but soon enough changed her mind.
"He did things I wouldn't do," she reported. "He went into the dirtiest, filthiest, poorest black homes...and he would sit with a baby who had open sores and whose belly was bloated from malnutrition, and he'd sit and touch and hold those babies...I wouldn't do that! I didn't do that! But he did."
He also got results, including a $145 million Senate package for emergency assistance. It wasn't the long-term planning he desired, but as Senator it was all he could do.
In 1998, Kennedy's youngest son, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, who was only three years old when his father died, had this to say:
"A group of thirteen doctors came to Washington to put before Congress the plight of people living in poverty in Appalachia - farmers losing their land, unable to feed their children. No one in Congress would take their call. They called Lyndon Johnson; Lyndon Johnson wouldn't take their call. They called each member of the Cabinet; no one would take their call. Finally, on Saturday they were ready to leave Washington, but someone had given them my father's number at home. They called him and said, 'We'd really like to talk to you about this.'
"And he said . . ."
Maxwell Kennedy makes a comical grimace, the look he imagines on the face of a hardworking senator telephoned at home on a Saturday to talk about poverty.
"And he said, 'Well, come on over.'"
Not only did RFK listen, but within just weeks he had helped prepare and pass the legislation creating food stamps.
"And whatever you might think of welfare," adds Maxwell, "this was bringing food to children who otherwise would not eat."
"He could see things through the eyes of the poor," reflected legendary freedom worker Cesar Chavez, whose quest for equity Kennedy embraced. "It was like he was ours."
"Bobby Kennedy," said Washington leader Rev. Channing Phillips, "had this fantastic ability to communicate hope to some pretty rejected people. No other white man has the same quality."
"Robert didn't come to us and tell us what was good for us," agreed labor activist Dolores Huerta. "He came to us and asked two questions...'What do you want? And how can I help?' That's why we loved him."
In the end, these words he and his brother John hewed to may be his most fitting eulogy:
Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were
and say why not.
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