After John Kennedy's assassination, Robert - formerly his brother's no-holds-barred political warrior - was left stunned and grieving. He was haunted by his brother's murder and by the nation's failure to address its most pressing challenges - race, poverty, and the war in Vietnam. He sensed that America was wounded, and when he announced that he was running for president, much of the country was thrilled to hear his message of healing and hope. Although fearing that there were, as he told one confidant, "guns between me and the White House," he risked his life to ask Americans to help him reclaim "the generous impulses that are the soul of this nation."
As Thurston Clarke recounts so effectively in The Last Campaign, Kennedy stirred huge crowds, who would often tear his clothes, and moved even the most hard-bitten of journalists and other intimate observers. He challenged his audiences: telling college students he would end the draft deferments that left poor and minority youths to fight in Vietnam and telling whites that they bore responsibility for black frustration and rage. His soft-spoken speech to a largely black audience in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was a stunning and effective call for peace in American that can still give the reader chills. After spending most of the campaign at Kennedy's side, reporter Richard Harwood, a former marine who had initially been suspicious of Kennedy, asked his editors at the Washington Post to replace him, telling them, "I'm falling in love with the guy."
Four days after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, two million grieving Americans - weeping, waving flags, saluting, and kneeling in prayer - lined the tracks to watch his funeral train carry his body from New York to Washington. One of the reporters on this train, Sylvia Wright of Life magazine, saw a bridal party standing in the tall grass of a Delaware meadow. As the car carrying Kennedy's casket passed, the party tossed their bouquets against its side, causing Wright to ask herself, "What did he have that he could do this to people?"
This question has become the silent refrain, present in most of what has been written or said since about this remarkable man. In The Last Campaign, this revelatory history that is especially resonant now, Thurston Clarke answers it.
In this hagiographic narrative of Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Democratic presidential primary campaign, RFK seems less a politician than a moral teacher. Hammering away at the immorality of poverty and racism, he confronted crowds with their own ethical culpability and, regarding the Vietnam War, reminding campus audiences of the unfairness of student draft deferments. Rapturous throngs of voters ate it up and propelled RFK to a string of victories. Clarke (Ask Not) positions Kennedy as a prototypical New Democrat who appealed to minorities and working-class whites alike by mixing liberalism with themes of law and order, free enterprise, jobs and local control. But in Clarke's telling, Kennedy's essence is spiritual rather than political; he is a Christ figure comforting sick children, utterly sincere in his beliefs and incapable of political pandering, haunted by forebodings of his assassination, his charisma "tactile and mystical... he had to let people see, touch, and commune with him." Clarke emphasizes the Kennedy campaign's contemporary resonance, but his book is more revealing as an iconic portrait of the passionate, turbulent zeitgeist of the 1960s. 8 pages of b&w photos.
A Roller Coaster Train Wreck
This book was hard for me to read--not because of the writing; rather, because of the sorrow I knew it would bring. I was ten when Robert Francis Kennedy conducted his last campaign. It was the year I became aware of the world. I clipped pictures and interviews of Bobby Kennedy and made a scrapbook during his campaign. Bobby Kennedy was my first political hero.
1968. It was the worst year in our nation's history since the Civil War, in my opinion. As I was reading "The Last Campaign," I knew how it would end. Before that fateful day, I was rejoicing in all that he experienced, all that he learned, all that he shared, all that he taught us. They were glorious moments in that horrible year. It was indeed a wild roller coaster ride.
And yet, with every twist and turn on this ride, I knew that it would end in the train wreck that it was. It was as though many expected it to end as it did. All of the prescient comments, jokes, asides, and feelings that Clarke shares in this book in one sense give me (us?) more peace about what happened, but on the other hand, it makes it all the sadder.
To think about what could have been, what might have been, what a different trajectory on the roller coaster our nation would have enjoyed.... The winding down years earlier of the Vietnam War--that alone would have changed the lives of so many Americans and Vietnamese (as well as Cambodians and so many others). Our nation's standing in the world would have shifted to moral-based positions. Would 9/11 have even occurred?
The worst experience any of us has, in my opinion, is lost opportunity. That's why we grieve so much for lost children. When Bobby Kennedy was taken too soon, his assassination took with him so many dreams of our nation and our nation's inhabitants--both citizens and citizens in the making.
By Clarke's account, Bobby Kennedy gave all he had every day during his last campaign. That is the glorifying news: he lived each of those last days in his last season to the fullest. For that, we can be happy. I only wish....