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.
Sometimes, his stands were politically driven. The dynamics of the coalition he built in preparation for his run for the presidency in 1968 -- uniting the old Democratic constituencies of blue-collar workers with the new constituencies of inner-city blacks and student war protesters -- prohibited a race policy of "quota hiring" at the bottom and "diversity appointments" at the top. Liberals correctly cite President Nixon's Philadelphia Plan as proof that it was a Republican administration that gave birth to affirmative action. But one of Nixon's purposes was to break up Kennedy's coalition -- and the Democrats' nomination of George McGovern in 1972 is proof that it worked.
Most of Kennedy's controversial stands, however, were not calculated to win votes or accommodate public opinion. Many did just the opposite. Where Hubert Humphrey felt comfortable campaigning in union halls and addressing established civil-rights organizations, and Eugene McCarthy found his niche among intellectuals, middle-class suburbanites, and "reform" Democrats, Kennedy toured the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, participated in an open-air mass with Cesar Chavez, and made his way to barrios, ghettos, and Indian reservations. He routinely called upon community activists before he visited mayors.
At the same time, Kennedy was the last Democrat to appeal to working-class Catholics -- a pivotal swing vote today. Now known as "Reagan Democrats," they were a crucial part of Nixon's "silent majority." Political pundits still debate how many of these Kennedy supporters voted for George Wallace in 1968 after Kennedy's death. In a book of his father's favorite quotations, Make Gentle the Life of This World, Kennedy's son Maxwell Taylor Kennedy claims that "virtually all of the Democrats who supported George Wallace had previously been RFK Democrats."
That is a bit of a stretch, but RFK voters did help decide who won many states that year, and his murder hastened the exodus of white ethnic voters from the Democratic party. Newt Gingrich has argued that the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy left the Democrats without anyone who had the "moral authority to disavow the most radical elements within the Democratic Party" -- and left the Republicans complacent, without any need to experiment with new ideas. Kennedy's candidacy, Gingrich thinks, might have challenged Republicans to devise in 1968 dynamic responses to the failure of the welfare state -- as they would in 1980 under Reagan.
In The Last Patrician, Michael Beran sees Kennedy as the last of the "Stimsonian statesmen" -- the figures who made American foreign and domestic policy for decades. It was they who made a reality of Henry Luce's prophecy that this would be the "American Century." David Halberstam called them the "best and brightest." They were our patricians -- well bred, well spoken, and educated exclusively at the eastern prep schools and Ivy League colleges -- and Henry L. Stimson, who entered government service under Theodore Roosevelt and exited under Truman, is the prototype of their caste.
Beran accurately describes the retreat of this American aristocracy late in the nineteenth century -- though he blames it on the rise of the robber barons (who created the wealth the Stimsonians would later try to redistribute). The Stimsonians returned to center stage as the supporting cast in the melodrama that went by the name of Theodore Roosevelt and retained their hold for nearly a century, entrenching themselves as a permanent policy-making apparatus.
Among the things they feared was participatory democracy. Their replacement of political appointees with civil servants, reliance on "professionals" and "experts," and preference for bureaucratic decrees over actions by elected officials were hardly populist or even democratic. But rather than antagonize the voters as their Federalist predecessors had done, they presented themselves as the champions of the common man. They justified top-down, bureaucratically administered programs as attempts to assist the forgotten and the poor.
Beran is at his best when he assesses the Stimsonians' most enduring legacy of an expanded federal government. He recounts how they staffed every administration this century, moving back and forth among Wall Street law firms, universities, and think tanks. He relates how this group acted, often in secret, to influence national affairs. He brings to life that all but defunct Washington institution, the Georgetown dinner party. Readers see Averell Harriman turning off his hearing aid to avoid listening to the young Richard Nixon and watch columnist Joseph Alsop (himself a grandnephew of Teddy Roosevelt) anoint John F. Kennedy the new head of this exclusive fraternity.
All previous bards of the Kennedy saga tell how Joseph P. Kennedy set out to win for his sons admission to this selective club. But Beran thinks the old man may have made a mistake. He argues, most persuasively, that by the late 1960s, the Stimsonian approach to public service had become a spent force. It had produced failure in the jungles of Vietnam and on the streets of American cities. Robert Kennedy sensed this and was among the first to break away.
In his quest for new solutions, Kennedy the liberal began applying conservative and entrepreneurial remedies to social ills. Perhaps this explains the popularity of Beran's book among the Washington think-tankers and congressional staffers. Kennedy favored tax incentives for attracting investment and jobs to poor neighborhoods. His proposals for the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn set the precedent for both Jack Kemp's "enterprise zones" and Al Gore's "empowerment zones."
Traditional liberals at the time hated Kennedy's proposals, but conservatives took notice. "I get the feeling I've been writing some of his speeches," said California governor Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley praised the senator for stealing an idea he had advanced in a newspaper column. Kennedy thought he could help depressed areas by channeling resources through local, community-based organizations rather than government agencies, and his plan for Bedford-Stuyvesant bears a close resemblance to the Community Renewal Act of 1998 -- which a bipartisan but primarily conservative group of senators and congressmen has introduced. Twenty-eight years before Congress ended the "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" welfare program, Kennedy was attacking a system that made the absence of fathers a precondition for assistance.
Kennedy's willingness to differ from his fellow liberals Beran attributes to the senator's reading, reflection, and exposure to suffering and pain. In his last years, Kennedy came to see the strength of the "self-reliance" Emerson preached and Lincoln exemplified. Where Clinton (who claims to have been inspired by Kennedy's example) and today's liberals oppose school choice on the grounds that it would assist "only a handful" of students, Kennedy reminded audiences that if society could not help all children, it could at least alleviate the suffering of some.
While neither as bold nor as original as Beran, Helen O'Donnell in her new memoir tells anecdotes that support some of Beran's conclusions. The two authors agree that however close Robert and John Kennedy were by blood and political alliance, they were emotionally and temperamentally as unlike as two brothers could be. For close male bonding, Kennedy turned to Helen O'Donnell's father, Kenneth, a Harvard classmate of working-class origins. In telling her father's story, she transforms him from the Camelot courtier who appears as a walk-on in most Kennedy books to a figure of substance and influence.
The Robert Kennedy of her book, however, is at last merely another conventional liberal icon. The author's own brand of activist politics blinds her to what her own stories reveal. There are many reasons people remain fascinated by Bobby Kennedy: nostalgia, romanticism, the idolatry of all things Kennedy, the almost Sophoclean tragedy of his life and death. But another reason is something that disappeared from American politics for a dozen years that June day he was shot down: the ability to question initial assumptions.
Alvin S. Felzenberg is a frequent writer and lecturer on the American presidency.