President Clinton, You're No Robert Kennedy


Ever since the death of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles 25 years ago today, his followers have been looking in vain for a political heir.

Last year, some hoped they had found him in Bill Clinton, another young presidential aspirant who spoke, as Robert Kennedy did, about the plight of the disadvantaged and the need for the country to address inequities and unmet social needs.

One characteristic of Mr. Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign bore a striking resemblance to the Kennedy of the 1968 campaign. On frequent occasions, Mr. Clinton like Mr. Kennedy would go to particular audiences and pointedly tell them what they didn't want to hear. The most notable was his visit to a Rainbow Coalition conference at which he sharply criticized rap artist Sister Souljah for inflammatory racial remarks in the wake of the Rodney King beating.

Mr. Clinton's criticism took place in the presence of Jesse Jackson and was widely interpreted as an intentional political ploy to demonstrate to white voters that he had no intention of stroking Mr. Jackson and tolerating pressures from him, as two previous Democratic presidential nominees, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, had so conspicuously done. Mr. Clinton denied it was such a ploy, but some of his political strategists plainly saw it as such, and in fact it was an incident that many white voters who didn't care for Mr. Jackson later said greatly reassured them.

Part of the Clinton campaign plan was doing what the candidate called "counter-intuitive events" and aides described as "going against the grain." In another notable example, Mr. Clinton went to Macomb County, Mich., a near lily-white blue collar area known as "the home of the Reagan Democrats," and cajoled the audience to put its racial biases aside, then went to a black church and did the same. Later, in Philadelphia, he went to the Wharton School, reminded the assembled business students that their alma mater had produced the likes of wheeler-dealers Donald Trump and Michael Milken, and called on them to use their education to nobler ends.

Robert Kennedy in 1968 also made a habit of jarring audiences. During the Indiana primary that year, he preached to the medical students at the Indiana University Medical Center about their obligation, and society's, to treat the poor. When one student skeptically asked where the money would come from "for these federally subsidized programs you're talking about," Mr. Kennedy shot back: "From you."

Noting that there were few black or red faces among the students, he went on: "You don't see many people coming out of the ghettos or off the Indian reservations to medical school. You are the privileged ones here. It's easy to sit back and say it's the fault of the federal government, but it's our responsibility, too. It's our society, not just our government, that spends twice as much on pets as on the poverty program. It's the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Vietnam. You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam." When a student shouted that "we'll be going soon," Mr. Kennedy said: "Yes, but you're here now, and they're over there. The war might be settled by the time you go."

Mr. Kennedy struck the same theme at Creighton University in Omaha, chiding the assembled students about their willingness to accept student draft deferments to stay out of a war they opposed while poor blacks and other minorities were drafted, shipped to Vietnam and sometimes killed.

One student asked: "But isn't the Army one way of getting young people out of the ghettos . . . and solving the ghetto problem?" Mr. Kennedy, incredulous, replied: "Here at a Catholic university, how can you say that we can deal with the problems of the poor by sending them to Vietnam? . . . And yet, when it comes down to you yourselves and your own individual lives, then you say students should be draft-deferred."

rTC Mr. Kennedy asked for a show of hands of how many were against the war. Most hands went up. Then he asked how many favored the student draft deferment. Again, most hands went up. He was exasperated. "Look around you," he said. "How many black faces do you see here? How many American Indians? How many Mexican-Americans? . . . The fact is, if you look at any regiment or division of paratroopers in Vietnam, 46 percent of them are black. How can you accept this? What I don't understand is that you don't even debate these things among yourselves. You are the most exclusive minority in the world. Are you just going to sit on your duffs and do nothing, or just carry signs and protest?"

Mr. Kennedy's exercises in telling voters things they didn't expect to hear from somebody seeking their votes came, however, not out of the political calculations obviously present in Mr. Clinton's "counter-intuitive" statements of the 1992 campaign. They were the product of his personal intensity and sense of outrage at the blatant unfairness of privilege in the society -- privilege that he himself enjoyed by the nature of his family's great wealth.

It was this passion -- coupled with compassion -- that set Robert Kennedy aside from Bill Clinton and his other would-be political heirs. It was this quality that kindled guilt in some better-off Americans and hope in others, and it marked him as unique in the politics not only of his time, but in the quarter of a century

since his death.

Robert Kennedy's passion took on greater meaning with the poor and disadvantaged in part because he personally shared their hurt, although it was of a different kind. His hurt came from the loss of his revered brother John, to whose political career and reputation Robert had single-mindedly dedicated his public efforts, before and after President Kennedy's assassination.

It is true that Bill Clinton lost his father, but the father's death came before his son's birth, and the son never knew him. Robert Kennedy's loss, which he wore on his sleeve, brought him a kinship with others who suffered; they readily saw that kinship and responded to it. And his own death, coming as it did at the hands of another assassin, left a generation of wounded political activists looking, without success to this day, for his like to come again.

Jules Witcover writes about politics from the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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