Forty years after Sirhan Sirhan cut down Robert Kennedy at the height of his grueling campaign to win the Democratic Party nomination, Thurston Clarke has produced an almost worshipful account of him during a frenetic time that bears disturbing similarities to our own.
Clarke’s timing is no accident. He notes that the U.S. is again mired in a costly and divisive war, led by an unpopular president, and racial divisions are again roiling the country. “Candidates from either party could run today on the same issues and champion the same causes that Kennedy had in 1968, since little has been done to address them,” he writes.
Clarke maintains that after Kennedy finally threw himself into the campaign, he was almost mystically transformed. In the retelling RFK suddenly changes from a person regarded by many as impatient, ruthless, and shallow to the champion of America’s less fortunate, his sharp elbows softened by compassion and commitment. Clarke asks whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama have the courage to “raise the issues that Kennedy had, and campaign as he did.”
The first part of the book is a prosaic recap of the political atmosphere of 1968 and the events leading up to the campaign. For this reader, there is little fresh information or insight. But once RFK finally decides to enter the race, Clarke’s narrative picks up speed. Bobby is no longer the less appealing alter ego of his brother, but his own man, full of compassion, tireless energy, and undoubted commitment. Whether one believes in miraculous transformations or not, the public response to RFK’s remarkable campaign gives plausibility to Clarke’s thesis.
He vividly portrays the mounting excitement, always framed against the backdrop of the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, and the brooding sense among Bobby’s entourage—and the candidate himself—that a similar fate might be awaiting him.
Basing his account on contemporary and archival accounts and the recollections of surviving participants he interviewed, Clarke shows how Bobby repeatedly disregarded his own safety as he waded into huge crowds to connect personally with the growing thousands who came to see him. They would tear his clothes, pull off his shoes, reach out to touch him. No matter how exhausted he was, he often deviated from the daily schedule to give people a chance to see him up close. He fed off the huge crowds, and they were energized by him. Even his closest aides were awed.
RFK’s recurring campaign theme was injustice. African Americans, perhaps looking for a champion after Martin Luther King’s assassination, turned out in huge numbers to see him. He appealed to both conservatives and liberals by calling for an end to urban violence as well as racial injustice.
On Vietnam Kennedy stressed the unfairness of the draft deferment system, which had its heaviest impact on the poor and minorities. But in a speech at Indiana University he said, “Vietnam has proven that all the might and power of America cannot provide or create a substitute for another government, or for the will of another people…” Clarke notes the speech could be delivered verbatim four decades later, changing only ”Iraq” for “Vietnam.”
Kennedy often faced hostile audiences, and instead of trying to placate them, he challenged them. At Purdue University, when someone in his “cold and unresponsive audience” asked about poverty, RFK eloquently described “the almost impassable barriers between the poor and the rest of the country.” His evident sincerity “pulled that audience to its feet in a roaring, whistling, cheering standing ovation.” A Kennedy insider observed, “The people of Indiana didn’t want programs. They wanted leadership.”
When a bellicose student in Oregon demanded the government mount a military action against North Korea, RFK said, “it’s not too late to enlist.” And when poor whites in West Virginia complained they had no jobs and nothing to do, he said, “Well, you could remove those wrecked cars from the side of the road.”
His most hostile audience was a group of med students who heckled and booed him over health care and demanded to know whether an expanded federal role would lead to government control and where the money would come from. Kennedy answered, his voice hardening and pointing to individual students, “From you–and you–and you…. The fact is there are people who suffer in this country to whom we have some responsibility…. The fact is the poor have a very difficult time even entering your profession.” Later, he realized he hadn’t won many votes despite scattered applause. He told an aide, “They were so comfortable…”
Forty years after RFK’s assassination, the key question is what kind of president he would have been had he survived and been elected. Clarke concludes the answer is unknowable, but he believes RFK showed the stuff of greatness. People “mourned him so fiercely because they sensed that he had tried to educate rather than manipulate them, reconcile rather than divide them, engage them in a dialogue rather than feed them the message of the day…and demand sacrifice instead of promising comfort.”
The Last Campaign shows that the issues of 1968 have hardly been resolved, though the contexts may have changed. Thurston Clarke clearly believes the country is again in need of a truly harmonizing leader.
Bill Lenderking is a retired foreign service officer and freelance journalist. Read his review of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.