Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy

Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy

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by David Halberstam

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The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy

By David Halberstam


Copyright © 1968 David Halberstam
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0589-9


In the late summer of 1967, a time of growing social turbulence and dissatisfaction in America, a young liberal named Allard Lowenstein went to visit his senator from New York, Robert Kennedy. A few years before, no two men in the Democratic party could have been more dissimilar: Lowenstein was a reformer, indeed an almost promiscuous reformer. A protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt and quick to enter her name in every conversation, he was identified with a vast list, perhaps too vast a list, of good and decent causes. Indeed it was not a liberal cause unless it were championed by Al Lowenstein. He was exactly the kind of person that Robert Kennedy, just a few years before, had most despised. Then Robert Kennedy had been the tough guy, ramrodding through his brother's nomination and election, and the reformers, God, at the beginning the reformers were almost worse than the Republicans. They hemmed and hawed; they talked too much and said too little; and they loved Stevenson. The reformers were too soft; too issue-prone; too—and this was the worst word yet—predictable. In 1960 Kennedy had exploded before New York's finest and purest reformers, saying, "Gentlemen, I don't give a damn if the state and county organizations survive after November and I don't give a damn if you survive. I want to elect John F. Kennedy President." And they loved that, though in later years when they thought warm thoughts about the Kennedy Presidency they would not remember Robert Kennedy's hard work and vital contribution to that end, but rather the harshness of his words.

Kennedy would have considered Lowenstein one of the worst of them. He was very closely associated with the old New Dealers, always running around Mississippi with black people, and had gone to South Africa and written a book about it. Indeed his liberalism was so pure and so all-encompassing that his friends gently and affectionately mocked it. According to Lowenstein legend, a friend once called his house and asked for him—"Al just left for Spain," replied his mother. "You know he never did like that General Franco...."

By 1967, however, the intensity of social upheaval had brought Lowenstein and Kennedy closer together. Lowenstein was devoting himself to heightening and sharpening the protest against Lyndon Johnson. Ambitious and deeply committed, a rare moralist-activist, and a member of the board of the ADA (though more radical and less anti-Communist than men ten years older than he), he would appear on campus after campus, a veteran student leader, perhaps the oldest in America, giving a focal point to the growing discontent. Whenever The New York Times ran a full-page ad saying "Rhodes Scholars Oppose War In Vietnam," or "Mister President, Peace Corps Returnees Oppose Your War," or "College Editors Oppose," etc., it was sure to be the work of Al Lowenstein. He had become truly evangelical on the campus, taking the dissenting and the alienated, telling them, really beseeching them, that yes, they could still work within the system, it could still be done, that protest against the war could be effectively registered within the system. Anyone who saw him during those days would remember the almost feverish quality to his work and remember asking him if it were hard to get kids interested in his crusade, and his answering that the only problem was bringing them back into the system; that no one knew how deeply alienated they were. Then he would excuse himself and fly off to Berkeley for two days and from there to Oregon and from there to Idaho. Al Lowenstein had gone everywhere in 1967, haunting Lyndon Johnson, and he had been properly smeared by Government officials. Peace Corps public-information officers had gone as far as to leak material insinuating that he was very left wing. Now, in the late summer, Lowenstein was trying to convince Robert Kennedy to run for President against Lyndon Johnson.

Kennedy, once a conservative, then an unannounced and reluctant liberal whose credentials were regularly challenged by more orthodox liberals, was by 1967 pursuing a course of increasing radicalism-proffering more radical ideas and taking on, from people like Lowenstein, more radical advice. His course was not so much a consistent philosophy as it was the application of his puritanism (what one friend called his perpetual sense of outrage) to a changing America. The more he looked, the more his vision of the country changed; darkening as he saw more of the inequities and more of the failures. The country was in transition politically, and curiously, so was he.

By both intent and heredity Kennedy had become the leader of the honorable opposition in the Democratic party; the leading critic of the administration's treatment of the ghettos, the leading critic of a great Pandora's box of social problems, and if not the leading critic of the war, the most important politically. When J. William Fulbright attacked the war it annoyed the President, but when Robert Kennedy attacked the war it meant that armies might march. The young liberals and radicals in their thirties and forties, and the college students, those who were staying within the system, no longer turned to Hubert Humphrey for their leadership, but to Robert Kennedy.

Lowenstein, this day, was telling Kennedy that the time had come when the speeches on Vietnam in the Senate, and the articles for Look magazine on the ghetto were no longer enough. It was 1967-going-on-1968 and the army, the vast network of conspirators, was ready to march. It had decided that despite the foremost myth of American politics—Rule One: You cannot unseat a sitting president of your own party—Johnson must and, more important, could be beaten. Lowenstein felt that the issues were far too great to let traditional party loyalty and regulations dominate. Times were different now. The network was in action and was very strong within the Democratic party; Johnson's invincibility was a myth, he could be beaten. The polls showed otherwise, but the polls reflected the mythology. The politicians said otherwise, but as John Kenneth Galbraith, the head of Americans for Democratic Action and another pioneer in the Bust Johnson movement, had said with great insight and accuracy early in 1967, This is a year when the people are right and the politicians are wrong." It would be a new and different coalition, Lowenstein told Kennedy; it would have to be done outside the party machinery. It would make powerful enemies for Kennedy, but they would be older men; men who, given the changing nature of American politics, would be less influential politically year by year; whereas the friends he would make would be young people and increasingly influential. But it could be done. Johnson was a hollow man politically; no one, and this was crucial, was for him or liked him. The war in the year ahead would get worse, turning more and more hawks to doves, making the opposition more and more respectable. Indeed doing the right thing would be politically advantageous. But the important thing, Lowenstein emphasized, was the nature of the issues—the war and the ghettos. They were issues of moral imperative, so serious that they did not permit waiting until 1972.

They were good friends now, and had been since 1966 when Kennedy, planning to take a trip to South Africa, had prepared a speech with which he was not totally satisfied. Someone recommended Lowenstein as a South African expert and he, as was the Kennedy wont, was summoned imperiously. He could not come, he said, because he was taking Norman Thomas, who was almost blind, to the Dominican Republic. For God's sake, Norman Thomas!, Kennedy said, exasperated—for to him Norman Thomas was then and this was now— get someone else to take Norman Thomas to the Dominican Republic. It was only at Kennedy Airport that Lowenstein did find someone to escort the old man; and he left to join Kennedy. He looked at the South Africa speech and did not hesitate to tell the Senator that he found it appalling, representing basically the view of the South African Bureau of Tourism—a totally white viewpoint—the conclusion of which was that the South Africans must do a little better by their Kaffirs. Lowenstein criticized the speech sharply and bluntly, and got on the phone to call some South African students attending colleges in the East. When they were assembled, they too rallied, testifying to the fact that it was a disastrous speech; it was accordingly changed, though much to the regret of the South African government. Disliking sycophants, Kennedy was delighted with Lowenstein and his display. They became friends. Kennedy came to value Lowenstein as an extra-intelligence operative, admiring his commitment and idealism, and appreciating the fact that Lowenstein was well connected among some radicals and students. He could help Kennedy interpret the relative merits of the tribes in that particular jungle; a jungle in which he was particularly interested.

But Allard Lowenstein was not the first to tell him to run for the presidency. Half the people Kennedy met were telling him to run, and the other half, of course, were telling him not to. The dilemma had been with him for some time. At an ADA meeting in 1967, he had sat with a group of distinguished liberals, all frustrated by the war and their party's control of the presidency. One of the men had said that the great strategy for 1968 would be to have a peace plank in the platform; yes, Lyndon Johnson running on a peace plank. Kennedy had turned and said, "When was the last time you heard of rallying millions of people to a plank?" Robert Lowell, the poet, had bitterly challenged him earlier in the year, saying that Kennedy's ambivalent behavior was disgraceful, and asking what it really was that Kennedy was running for, the presidency of Harvard? Kennedy agreed thoroughly, noting that the way things were going he would be very lucky to get even that.

Kennedy in fact had thought about the race a great deal and had talked to many people; friends from the Kennedy administration, the bosses who had helped put John Kennedy in office. Though he was getting active and enthusiastic encouragement from friends whom he associated with social issues and whose judgment he trusted on these issues, he was getting just the opposite from people whose judgment he trusted on political matters—the people he had always turned to in the past, the professionals. They told him that first: no, it couldn't be done, and second: he would destroy himself in the party if he tried—he would never be forgiven by the party faithful, and would be charged with dividing the party (which was of course already hopelessly divided: the party regulars vs. virtually everyone else). Though this was to be a year in which social issues and new social forces would finally surface politically, Robert Kennedy had not yet realized that; and he sided with the political judgment of the pros. He admired the moral judgment, the sincerity, of people like Lowenstein, but he had talked with Mayor Daley, and Governor Y, and Chairman Z, and they had all said the same thing: you can't do it, it's not the year, you must wait. We like you; we loved your brother; and we think favorably of you for 1972, but you can't do it. And so Robert Kennedy passed this on to Lowenstein: I'm sorry, he said, I can't do it. And Lowenstein, an intense and consummately serious young man, looked at him for a long time and then answered: "The people who think that the future and the honor of this country are at stake because of Vietnam don't give a shit what Mayor Daley and Governor Y and Chairman Z think. We're going to do it, and we're going to win, and it's a shame you're not with us, because you could have been President." Then they shook hands rather sadly and parted.

That was how the 1968 campaign began for Robert Kennedy: it began badly. Later he realized this as his natural constituency slipped away. In late March, after he had finally entered the race, he was on a bus with Lowenstein in upstate New York. Overhearing someone say that Lowenstein had left Eugene McCarthy and had come over to him, Kennedy excitedly grabbed Lowenstein, anticipating that this move might bring some of the kids around to his side, but only to find that he had heard incorrectly. Impressed with Lowenstein's loyalty to McCarthy, and feeling somewhat sad for himself, later during that ride he took up a pad and scribbled a note to his friend:

For Al, who knew the lessons of Emerson and taught it to the rest of us: "They did not yet see and thousands of young men as hopeful, now crowding to the barriers of their careers, do not yet see that if a single man plant himself on his convictions and then abide, the huge world will come round to him." From his friend Bob Kennedy.

The coalition which was forming in the country in mid-1967 was a loose one, people like Lowenstein and Galbraith, some of the key officials of the California Democratic Councils, a few eggheads here and there, and occasionally a dissenting party official. The coalition was strong on the campuses, for it was there that the issue of Vietnam had first bloomed politically. It had started with the teach-ins in 1965. The issue had been taken up by white middleclass kids and intensified by the fact that it was not just an intangible moral issue, but indeed a very tangible one—the draft having given it great immediacy. In 1967 the issue had not yet touched some of the traditional centers of the Democratic party such as the labor unions or the party apparatus itself. Though there were places where party officials sensed its presence, they remained silent, for fear that discussion would heighten the issue and the Republicans would end up exploiting it. The party professionals by and large would not accept the fact that it was already an expanding issue. They would sample the temperature of the water as they always had, largely by talking to people very much like themselves, and they would find little if any dissent among what they considered real people. The average non-intellectual American at that time may have felt doubts about the war, but he was being extremely cautious about expressing them. He might have suspected that the war was one great, terrible, stupid disaster, but when asked would perhaps mumble something about protecting Thailand. The professionals, in 1967, did not talk to students, nor to the middle class in the suburbs; they saw little of what was happening.

But the coalition was convinced that this was not a lost cause. The country was ripe for an unorthodox political movement. They believed Johnson to be a war president who could only drag the country deeper into the war and they vowed that their party would not be his vehicle if they could help it. These men were driven by their own moral imperative. They saw the war as a quagmire, the country hopelessly bogged down in a useless, hopeless conflict which could not be won, and they felt that the longer the war went on, the more dangerous and more isolated Johnson became. Writing now, in 1968, it is hard to re-create the atmosphere. They saw a steady migration of doubters from Washington's official circles, and when McNamara left in 1967, they were terrified. Though McNamara had earlier been the symbol of the war, McNamara's War, they thought that he had, by the end, become a voice of sanity. It was rumored in dark corners that McNamara was a dove in hawk's clothing, and the departure of the Good McNamara proved to them the insanity of the administration. They also witnessed the steady ascension of the sycophants, the people who told the President what he wanted to hear. It was no longer a credibility gap, but rather a reality gap, which existed in Washington. The President had never been known as a man to honor those who brought him bad news, and that most human weakness of his—under the pressure of the war's becoming a dangerous one—was becoming worse daily. At a small dinner party for Everett Martin, a distinguished Newsweek correspondent just back from two years in Vietnam, Walt Whitman Rostow, the man who chose what the President would see on Vietnam and chose it very carefully indeed, managed to spend a full evening without ever once acknowledging that Martin had been to Vietnam—no small feat. The dissenters in late 1967 were not normal political opponents, they were men genuinely terrified about the course of American action. They were frightened by Johnson's personal identification with the war—he chose every bombing site, he flew every mission—and were uneasy not only with where their country was, but where it was going.

They were also convinced that the alleged hawkish orientation of the country was misleading; that a lot of hawks were only skin deep; and once dovishness was given any kind of serious political outlet, there would be an exodus from hawk to dove. "Our advantage," said Galbraith, "was that even if there were more hawks than doves, the hawks didn't really believe what they said. It was easy to turn them around."


Excerpted from The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy by David Halberstam. Copyright © 1968 David Halberstam. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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