Imagine Robert F. Kennedy is alive and running for re-election to the U.S. Senate today. Would he be on the hustings from early morning to late at night - engulfed by eager men, women and children like those who jammed the streets and cheered him wherever he campaigned in the 1960s? Or would he be confining his campaign to as many slick TV commercials as he could afford and making a few appearances before small, friendly audiences, avoiding press conferences and any other appearance that he could not control, like so many candidates do today?
There's no doubt in my mind.
Kennedy knew campaigning inside and out. In managing his brother's campaigns and in his own, he quickly adjusted to television's growing impact and used the latest techniques for polling and influencing public opinion. And he'd be doing that today. But he'd also be handshaking morning shifts at factory gates, seeking votes in diverse forums and neighborhoods. He'd be speaking out -- challenging listeners to help the disadvantaged and work together, to oppose violence and organized crime and to take stands on public issues.
Kennedy meant what he said -- all the time -- and in putting his words into action, he would go all the way -- all the time. His followers and his enemies had come to realize that well before his assassination -- minutes after he claimed victory in the presidential primary election in California, 30 long years ago this week. It was at the core of his support and his opposition and is the key today to analyzing his public career.
People who tangled with him in political hustings, in congressional hearings or in court stereotyped him as "ruthless," "vicious," "power-hungry," "vengeful" and "opportunistic." His family, friends, aides and people he helped remember him as truthful, candid, courageous, caring and unalterably committed to justice and freedom.
He remains controversial despite, since his death, having been the subject of books by the score and several television documentaries. Books published as the 30th anniversary neared include "Make Gentle the Life of This World" by Kennedy's youngest son, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy (Harcourt Brace & Company, 188 pages, $20), a collection of quotations from RFK's speeches; "The Last Patrician," by Michael Knox Bean (St. Martin's Press, 251 pages, $23.95); "Robert Kennedy -- Brother Protector" by James W. Hilty (Temple University Press, 642 pages, $34.95 ) and "A Common Good: The Friendship Between Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell," by Helen O'Donnell (William Morrow, 352 pages, $26).
How can a person find the real Bob Kennedy? Those of us who knew him well would say this: disregard analyses that attempt to probe his psyche and look at what he did. For example:
In 1956, a few weeks before his 30th birthday, Kennedy, the chief counsel of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, began investigating whether Teamsters Union leaders were corrupt and had ties to organized crime.
"I had only a vague impression of the Teamsters Union -- only a notion that it was big and tough," he said, but 18 months later, after recruiting capable investigators and finding that corrupt labor leaders were in league with crime syndicate bosses, he told his staff, "either we're going to be successful or they're going to have the country . . ." and he wrote "If we do not on a national scale attack organized criminals with weapons and techniques as effective as their own, they will destroy us."
The committee's findings - Kennedy took responsibility for the accuracy of his witnesses' testimony - led to passage of the Labor Reform Act, making embezzlement of union funds a federal crime and providing for free elections, including a secret ballot, and requiring unions to file detailed financial and administrative reports with the Department of Labor.
In February 1961, two days after taking the oath as attorney general in his brother's cabinet, he acted to mobilize all 27 federal law enforcement units -- from the FBI to the Civil Aeronautics Board -- in a coordinated effort to combat organized crime, which despite shifting degrees of motivation and effectiveness, depending largely on who is in the White House, continues today.
It was the same with civil rights. When he became attorney general he understood that the country had been intractable in redressing African-Americans' historical grievances and recognized that civil rights would be among the new administration's major problems.
Because the Justice Department pushed the civil rights agenda, putting the federal government into the fight for the first time morally as well as actively, the groundwork was done that led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the Johnson administration.
Kennedy could not see or become aware of something he thought was wrong and not act, whether it was to comfort a child, uphold a law, or bring African-American residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant and leading New York bankers and businessmen together to create jobs and improve housing and public education there.
When, as a member of the Senate Migratory Labor Subcommittee, he became aware of the wretched living and working conditions of itinerent workers in California, he endorsed Cesar Chavez's efforts to unionize them. Dolores Huerta, a union official, remembered: "Robert didn't come to us and tell us what was good for us. He came and asked two questions . . . 'What do you want?' and 'How can I help?' That's why we loved him."
He would take risks to do what he believed was right, but never ducked responsibility for what he did. When a riot developed on the Ole Miss campus over Meredith's admission, 300 deputy U.S. marshals were besieged. They were armed but under orders not to use their guns, but when 29 had been wounded by gunfire from the mob, they asked over an open phone line for permission to fire back. Kennedy refused, avoiding a horrendous bloodbath. He was 35 years old.
Six months later, in planning to deal with possible violence when Alabama Gov. George Wallace would "stand in the doorway" to prevent the court-ordered admission of two African-Americans -- young man and a young woman -- to the University of Alabama, Army generals urged Kennedy, should the need arise, to leave the decision to open fire to the commander on the scene.
"No," he said. "I have to decide if troops are sent in and if anyone is killed, it will be my responsibility."
Fortunately, troops were not needed.
President Kennedy's assassination left Robert Kennedy crushed, desolate and stoic. As he gradually resumed functioning as attorney general and then as a U.S. senator from New York, many writers perceived a distinct change -- that he had become more compassionate and tolerant and was becoming more liberal and more dissatisfied with the status quo.
In truth, his outlook did change, as experiences broadened his views and he tirelessly sought answers to the problems that challenged him, but his character remained as it had been.
Had he lived, whether he had won or lost the presidency, he would have fought on. He would never have retreated. As his eldest child, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, wrote recently, "it is uncanny how contemporary his words (from the 1968 campaign) sound."
So he'd be out there today, using television, of course, but campaigning from morning to midnight with proposals for dealing with domestic or international problems and there'd be time to hear, perhaps, an echo of the last words he spoke that night in Los Angeles:
"I think we can end division within the United States. What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. And that what has been going on with the United States . . . the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups . . . that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running . . . "
Edwin O. Guthman, now a professor at the University of Southern California School of Journalism, was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1977 to 1987, and before that served on the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Star. He was press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy when RFK was U.S. attorney general and when he first ran for the Senate. He has edited and written several books, including "We Band of Brothers" in 1971.
Pub Date: 5/31/98