The Magazine


The Conservatism of Robert F. Kennedy

Jul 6, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 42 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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What is it about Robert Kennedy that continues to fascinate students and practitioners of American politics thirty years after his death?

He never became president, and he served as attorney general for only three years, from 1961 to 1964. He worked for a while on Joe McCarthy's Senate committee, but he left when he lost a struggle with Roy Cohn for the job of counsel. And when he did manage to become counsel to a later committee, it was primarily because his brother, Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, was a committee member.

Even his time as a senator, 1965 to 1968, was too brief to leave any legacy of legislative achievement -- and he wasn't much interested in that part of the job anyway. Running in New York rather than Massachusetts, he succeeded in overcoming the "carpetbagger" issue to defeat the moderate Republican Kenneth Keating. But the ran more than a million votes behind Lyndon Johnson in a state where much of the liberal establishment opposed him.

And yet, interest in the man proceeds undiminished. A huge shelf of books have appeared in the thirty years since his assassination, and two new books show that there is no chance that we are finished hearing about him: The Last Patrician: Robert Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy by Michael Knox Beran and A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell by Helen O'Donnell.

Kennedy's lasting contributions include some he did not intend, especially the "Bobby Kennedy Law" that Lyndon Johnson had passed in vengeful spite. It bars presidential relatives from holding high appointments and is the primary reason Hillary Clinton was never nominated for a major post.

There is some legitimate purpose to the law. Robert Kennedy may have been the minister with the widest portfolio in American history. Colonel House, who performed similar tasks for Woodrow Wilson, is his only rival. But House had a falling out with his president, an impossibility among the Kennedys. Within his brother's administration, Robert Kennedy was clearly the first among equals: not merely attorney general, but his brother's keeper, point man for everything concerning the president -- which often meant the entire government.

There is also, however, a loss involved in the Bobby Kennedy Law. While journalists speculate as to who will be each new president's "Bobby," no one but a relative could hold the kind of position Kennedy had. And if Nixon had only had a decent "Bobby" around to whom he would have listened, much of Watergate might have been avoided.

Romanticism partly explains the hold Robert Kennedy still exerts. The tragedies he suffered during his life and the horror of his assassination in California in June 1968 cast a melancholy aura over his memory.

But there is another reason that those who supported and opposed Robert Kennedy -- as well as those who were not even alive to do either -- cannot let go of the man. Kennedy was among that rare breed of politicians willing to say and do unconventional things. His beginnings as an anti-Communist and his frequent breaking of ranks with the Democratic party made him a figure of suspicion to his liberal constituency.

He opposed the Vietnam war and acknowledged his role in initiating it. Yet he urged middle-class college students to surrender their student deferments -- pointing to the parallel between deferments and the ability of wealthy northerners to buy draft substitutes during the Civil War. He antagonized the labor movement when he relentlessly exposed corruption in Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters Union. George Meany of the AFL-CIO never forgave Kennedy for demanding to know at a Senate hearing why African Americans held so few skilled jobs in the building trades.

Kennedy was unsparing of another powerhouse within the Democratic party, teachers' unions. He may have been the first public figure to question whether increased spending improved student performance. The education lobby fought his attempt to link federal funds to measurable improvements as strenuously as they resist vouchers, school choice, and opportunity scholarships today.