Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Bobby Kennedy: 50 Years Later


We will never know for certain what might have been had Bobby Kennedy not died on June 6, 1968. There are those who say he would've won the Democratic nomination. Indeed, he had just won the California primary the night before and, in his own words, he was "off to Chicago to win there too." Moments later he was gone, felled by an assassin's bullet in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

History was irrevocably changed that day, and not just for a nation that was already reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic Party was in the midst of a civil war unlike anything it had experienced since the Reconstruction Era. Lyndon Johnson, long a champion of the Left, was viewed by progressives as a sellout because he escalated the war in Vietnam. His decision not to seek reelection that Spring, coupled with Kennedy's assassination, left the Party leaderless and directionless. The anarchy which gripped the Democratic Convention eventually led to the nomination being stolen from Eugene McCarthy and given to Hubert Humphrey. Progressives were furious and took their frustration out by staying home in November, thus helping to pave the way for the election of Richard Nixon.

It's been fifty years since that fateful day in June and still the Democratic Party is reeling. It has had its moments for sure - Barack Obama in '08 - but as a whole, the Party has never gotten over the "what might've beens." What kind of president would Bobby Kennedy have made? Would he have been the next FDR, or would he, like his brother before him and Obama later, have succumb to the realities of governing. It's a political axiom that it's a lot easier running for president than actually being one. Many an idealist on the campaign trail has been forced to worship at the alter of pragmatism once in office.

My guess is that Bobby Kennedy, had he lived and won the election, would've been just as frustrated by the constraints of being president as Obama was during his two terms. If you recall, it wasn't that long before the bloom came off his rose and progressives started whining that he wasn't living up to his end of the bargain. The Affordable Care Act to this day is despised by the Left who see it as a sellout to the insurance industry. Imagine what would've happened to Bobby if, for instance, he hadn't been able to end the Vietnam War like he promised. LBJ at least had the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts on his resume. All Bobby had going for him was his last name and good looks. J. Edgar Hoover despised him, as did much of the establishment. It wouldn't have taken much for the seeds of discontent to have taken root and undermined his presidency.

If you think that's a somewhat cynical view, consider this: Kennedy was hardly a fan of the Great Society. In a speech he gave in 1966, he was critical of the anti-poverty programs of both the Johnson and Roosevelt Administrations, maintaining that despite their good intentions, poverty had gone up not down. I suspect that Kennedy would've been far more amenable to what he called "different ideas" than most of his contemporaries, and those ideas might very well have been met with stiff resistance from his base and even among Democrats in general.

The problem with being an outsider is that once you're inside, the very same forces that you ran against eventually gang up and tear at you until you either give in to them or run for the hills. LBJ chose the latter; Bobby likely would've opted for the former, believing as his brother and Obama did, that being an insider - even a compromised one - was the only effective way to shape policy. If Winston Churchill was right, that history is indeed written by the victors, Bobby would've made damn sure he was in the race.

Far from being the darling of the Left, though, a Bobby Kennedy administration would've likely been filled with people from both ends of the political spectrum. Socially he would've been a progressive, but on issues that pertained to the disenfranchised, his out of the box thinking might very well have ushered in a new form of politics; one in which the Center took hold in the country. Had he managed to get results without the massive growth of the federal bureaucracy, he might very well have preempted the rise of the far Right that brought us the age of Reagan.

Then again, he might very well have been in over his head. The world of 1968 was tumultuous to say the least. There were riots in the cities as well as on college campuses. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive launched by the North was seen by an already skeptical American public that the war was not going as advertised. Like the proverbial man whose eyes were too big for his stomach, Bobby might've bitten off more than he could chew. Jimmy Carter found that out the hard way. The moral of his presidency can best be summed up with these words: the best of intentions can often lead to the worst of consequences. Translation, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

What the last two hundred years have taught us is that there's more to the presidency than the mere pomp and circumstance surrounding it. Men like Washington and Lincoln have graced the office; others like Nixon and Trump have disgraced it; while still others like Carter have been swallowed up by the enormity of it.

Fifty years have come and gone and we are still no closer to being able to answer what kind of president Bobby Kennedy would've made. It seems all we have left is a legacy that lives on and a dream that refuses to die. Given who the country elected that year, I'd say most of us would agree it would've been a dream worth living out.

No comments: