Previously in Politics & Prose:
McCain and the "Bloody Chasm" (December 30, 1999)
Christopher Caldwell explains why the liberal press loves John McCain.
A New Deal for the New Economy (December 8, 1999)
Is this the best economy in years? It depends on whom you ask, Jack Beatty argues, and where in the world they live.
Is W. Inevitable? (November 17, 1999)
It looks like George W. Bush has the nomination in the bag. Christopher Caldwell offers a scenario of how Bush could become a loser.
Step Right Up (October 15, 1999)
Scott Stossel asks, What does the Reform Party's cast of odd characters suggest about the state of American politics? Think Fellini. Think David Lynch.
The Billionaire's Curse (September 22, 1999)
Jack Beatty wonders why we should feel sorry for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and epitomizes "capitalism's hurricane of progress."
More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.
Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
A new biography of Robert F. Kennedy shows him to be authoritarian and unprincipled. So why is he a model for today's Democrats?
To the question "Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?" the liberal biographer Ronald Steel adds, "Curse him if you do." Steel is among those who think the statute of limitations that forbids trashing the martyred Kennedys has expired. His study In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy portrays RFK as ruthless, vengeful, dishonest, sanctimonious, antiliberal (because "being liberal meant being weak," Steel explains); "nasty, brutal, humorless" (said a Harvard classmate); a "dangerous" and "Torquemada-like" figure (said Gore Vidal) who "could sack a town and enjoy it" (according to General Maxwell Taylor). RFK's record before his brother's assassination consisted of (1) serving as an enthusiastic and unrepentant henchman of Senator Joe McCarthy; (2) destroying unions with his no-holds-barred prosecution of the Teamsters; (3) running a presidential campaign notable for its crookedness; and (4) plotting to murder Fidel Castro and various other Third World leaders.
RFK's present status as "the liberal icon" thus needs explaining. For Steel, it rests on the "transformation" Kennedy supposedly underwent after his brother's assassination, which led him to a number of new political stances. First, he embraced civil rights -- even though he'd been a lukewarm integrationist as attorney general, and hadn't invited Martin Luther King Jr. to his brother's funeral. Second, he turned against the war in Vietnam -- even though he and his brother had launched it. Third, he sabotaged the Great Society -- even though it was the ideological centerpiece of his party.
Steel argues that this politics grew out of personal ambition and a jealous resentment of Lyndon Johnson. RFK's attempt to bypass Johnson's Great Society -- by "cobbling together a coalition from around the fringes: young people, blacks, and Hispanics, Vietnam War opponents, non-union workers, the poor" -- was cynical and calculating. What's more, Steel believes, it fatally damaged liberalism, since all of the above were relatively powerless and could be bought off with words instead of deeds. RFK crowded out Eugene McCarthy's principled antiwar position with his own phony one. He undermined the welfare state and retarded racial reconciliation by urging that we throw private-sector money at the cities rather than integrate them.
As the brother of a martyred president, RFK had carte blanche to campaign like a charismatic authoritarian, stoking the grievances of lumpen crowds. Kennedy, like many demagogues, was at ease only with social inferiors, whom he could bully into a constituency whose only defining identity was himself. RFK said of his own leadership style, "I appeal best to people who have problems." For Steel, such appeals are about psychopathology, not politics.
If, like Steel, you don't really believe RFK was "transformed" by his brother's death, then RFK is a perfect symbol of what conservatives think liberalism is in general: the deployment of compassionate rhetoric to authoritarian ends. But if you do believe in the transformation, you get a perfect description of what liberalism believes itself to be: conscience-seeking, focused on race, driven by a mission to include the excluded.
Steel's judgment that RFK was a dictator-in-waiting strikes me as well-grounded. Yet there must have been something to Kennedy's transformation. If it was phony at the personal level, it probably was real at the party level. If it's a myth, then it's a myth with a vast capacity to inspire and an incredible staying power. So much so that to look at American politics as Robert Kennedy saw it in 1968 gives an excellent picture of what's going on in the current presidential election. Consider these factors:
The coalitions. RFK's courting of black voters was a risky strategy in 1968. "The only way we're going to win this thing is to get 90 percent of the black vote," said his aide Richard Wade. Fatalistic hyperbole at the time, but today Democrats get 90 percent of the black vote routinely. Al Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile describes "women, blacks, organized labor, and ethnic minorities" as the "four pillars of the Democratic party." RFK looks more like a prophet than a pander.
Steel thinks RFK's claim to have brought working-class whites and blacks together in his Indiana primary victory was a myth. He's right. He adds that RFK's victory in California, won largely on the strength of Hispanic votes, was "not the kind of impressive victory he needed to eliminate McCarthy." Again, true. But so what? They were wins. Democrats wound up following RFK's strategy of scavenging for votes among marginalized groups -- with mixed results for decades. But today that strategy is paying off as such groups burgeon. Gays, environmentalists, and the disabled vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Hispanics are the party's trump card in mammoth swing states like California, Texas, and Florida. Whites, meanwhile, have not given a majority to a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.
The political style. RFK's "idealism" may have been a Machiavellian ruse. What's more, it may have been responsible for driving away a white working class suspicious of following a political prophet from epiphany to epiphany. But every winning presidential candidate from Jimmy Carter onward, whether promising "morning in America" or a "kinder, gentler nation" or a "new covenant" has been as much a moralist as a manager. Today's voters think a personal trial by fire, like RFK's after his brother's assassination, lends moral kudos. "Part of his appeal," Steel says of RFK, "was that he seemed to be ... unhappy." That was true when he ran as a carpetbagging New York senatorial candidate in 1964 -- and it's true of the jilted First Lady who's running as a carpetbagger for the same seat in 2000.
The issues. Ronald Reagan noted that just before his death, "[Robert] Kennedy was talking more and more like me." RFK attacked welfare's culture of dependency, urging that the inner cities be rebuilt with private-sector initiatives. Bigger housing projects and busing struck him as dead ends. Surely he has been vindicated in this. The big-government policies Eugene McCarthy espoused have been repudiated in both parties. RFK's ideas are fully in the spirit of the welfare reform President Clinton made the cornerstone of the Democrats' new identity, over the protests of his party's black urban base. What baffles and infuriates Steel about RFK, in fact, is what frustrates Republicans about Bill Clinton: that he has such a rapport with out-groups that he can deny them what they profess to want, and still sweep their votes.
If it was sheer personal charisma that allowed Kennedy to unite his party's disparate wings, then post-Kennedy Democrats have great reason to worry whenever their candidate lacks it. The Wall Street-Main Street alliance RFK launched to rebuild Bedford-Stuyvesant's ghetto showed promise, but collapsed once he died. Perhaps Bill Clinton, too, has held the Democrats' multipart base together through force of personality alone. Will Bill Bradley or Al Gore be able to smooth over tensions between, say, gay activists and traditionalist black preachers, or between environmental activists and polluting Hispanic factories, or between old-fashioned unions and the feminists who want to open them up?
Probably not. The underlying question is whether shifting coalitions bring new political leaders to the fore, or whether political leaders attract new coalitions to form around them. The answer depends on whether we're talking about mediocre politicians or great ones. For all his thuggery, RFK was among those great politicians (like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) who build new coalitions that the mediocre ones (like George Bush Sr. and Al Gore) merely fight over once they're gone.
More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.