After a lifetime spent in the company of the rogues, the rascals and, yes, the phonies of politics, I have concluded that American voters are searching for one of two presidential types: a warm conservative with a generous heart or a tough liberal with a steel backbone. As the late wise conservative leader Jeffrey Bell once said admiringly of Robert F. Kennedy, who began his tragic run for president on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day a half-century ago, since RFK, “no liberal leader has come close to uniting blacks and northern working-class whites.”
Never was that special Kennedy appeal more visible than on May 6, 1968, when RFK, in an open convertible, was cheered by crowds on the streets of Gary, Ind., a city that was no stranger to racial tensions. On one side of the candidate sat the hometown hero to so many in Gary’s Eastern European community, former middleweight champion Tony Zale, and on the other was Richard Hatcher, the city’s first African-American mayor.
Why did Robert Kennedy, a man never nominated, let alone elected, touch so profoundly and inspire so many people? In the frankly unobjective opinion of your correspondent — who worked for him as a campaign organizer in 1968 in the Nebraska, Oregon and California primaries — Robert Kennedy was the last tough liberal. Branded as ruthless by his critics on the left and the right, his heart did bleed for the dispossessed and the forgotten, especially the children, living on the outskirts of hope. Rejecting the orthodoxy of his era, Kennedy argued that just as schools test students, communities had to be able to test their schools, that the federal welfare system was harmful to the poor and that, seeing as he stood for a government that could be both energetic and effective, power must be decentralized away from Washington. This, in 1968, was liberal heresy.
Kennedy challenged, rather than coddled, voters. At Creighton University in Omaha, just before the Nebraska primary, he asked how many favored deferments for college students from the military draft then in effect. When the majority of hands went up, Kennedy, who had left Harvard to enlist in the Navy and serve as a lowly apprentice seaman on a destroyer in World War II, did not conceal his anger. “Look around you. How many black faces do you see here? How many American Indians? How many Mexican-Americans? ... If you look at any regiment or division of paratroopers in Vietnam, 45 percent of them are black. You’re the most exclusive minority in the world. Are you just going to sit on your duffs and do nothing or just carry signs in protest?”
He did not simply comfort the afflicted; he also would afflict the comfortable, telling his audiences and his fellow citizens to meet the responsibilities of citizenship, reminding us forcefully of all that we owe to our community, to our country and to one another. He was no plaster saint. He waited too long, after Gene McCarthy had bravely dared to do so, to enter the 1968 race. But as Cesar Chavez, whose struggling union of powerless farmworkers Kennedy had championed, said, he could see things through the eyes of the poor. “It was like he was ours,” Chavez said.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1964, in Scranton, Pa., RFK made his first public speech since his brother’s assassination. He quoted lines from an Irish poem about Owen Roe O’Neill, who fell in the doomed battle for freedom. The words seem appropriate today.
“O! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?
“Your troubles are all over, you’re at rest with God on high,
“But we’re slaves, and we’re orphans, Owen! — why did you die?
“We’re sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky—
“O! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?”
— Mark Shields is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.