What today's presidential nominees can learn from Bobby Kennedy

Op-ed: Donald and Hillary could learn a thing or two from Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign.

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, which started out mired in a similar meanness but then demonstrated how to rise 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 whistle-stop 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, in the words of a reporter covering the campaign, "looked as if [they] had come off the rack of a small-town haberdasher."

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-and-order 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 told college kids everywhere he went that they could change the world, so why the hell weren't they? He warned 800 medical students at Indiana University that they'd have to foot the bill for caring for the poor.

It happened again at a luncheon of Civitans, a men's service club. As his audience chewed on Salisbury steaks, 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, this senator, who was kept up nights by images of the hungry children he'd met in the Mississippi Delta, 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?

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).

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