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RFK: What we lost, what we learned

Jeff Greenfield
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Robert Kennedy's Daughter Involved in Car Accident

By Jeff Greenfield

He has been gone longer than he was alive. When he was killed 45 years ago on June 6, just after winning the California presidential primary, Robert Kennedy was 42 years old.

Because I worked on that campaign, I’ve been asked the same questions over and over: Could he have been nominated? Could he have been elected? Could he have made a real difference had he won?

After four decades of brushing the questions aside—“Who knows?”—I tried to answer them in a detailed narrative. If you want one version of how Kennedy might have won in Chicago, how he might have beaten Nixon and what he might have tried to do, you can find it in my “what-if?” book, “Then Everything Changed.”
   
Of course, it’s just as possible to imagine Kennedy losing the nomination—Hubert Humphrey had most of the big nonprimary states—or losing to Nixon in November. (Maybe in a decade or so, Robert Caro will tell us what LBJ would have tried to do to Bobby.)

For me, the real loss does not lie in the realm of speculation. We know what we lost: The voice and vision of a still-young man with an extraordinary—perhaps unique—understanding of the possibilities and limits of public action.
   
By the time he ran for president, Kennedy had spent almost three years at the very center of power, as attorney general and (much more important) as President John F. Kennedy’s closest confidant. He had learned lessons that few aspirants to the White House ever get to learn: the way “experts” may be ignorant; the way certainties offered to a president may be dead wrong; and the way untested assumptions can lead to disaster.

Some of these lessons came at the cost of humility. John and Robert Kennedy brought no small measure of arrogance to the presidency. The efforts to subvert Castro’s regime in Cuba (possibly including assassination), the embrace of counter-insurgency in Vietnam and the failure to understand how to deal with Congress cost the Kennedy administration heavily.

The crucial point here is that Robert Kennedy had learned from these mistakes. (One of his favorite quotes, from Aeschylus, says, “God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride.”) At the point when most powerful people are setting out to write their memoirs, he found himself suddenly, violently thrown from power with the death of his brother—which meant that he found himself outside the corridors of power, with full knowledge of what went on inside. It meant, for instance, that he knew that passing a bill and spending money did not necessarily make things better. It meant he understood how structural, institutional weaknesses could undermine good intentions. (My first day on his Senate staff, I went to a hearing on the then-new federal aid to education law. “What is happening with the money?” he wanted to know. Why is it then, he asked, “whenever I go into a ghetto, the two things people hate most are the public welfare system and the public education system?”)

He was, in other words, a public figure challenging orthodox liberalism at the very moment of its postwar peak and raising radical questions about what we were doing for the least of us. Decades before Newt Gingrich suggested that school kids could work (as janitors, of course, since Gingrich was pandering to a very conservative base), Kennedy was suggesting that high school kids might be let out of school a few hours a week to work: to earn money, learn a trade, maybe find an appetite for a profession. That’s why in my alternate history, I imagined him in a major fight with the teachers’ unions.

That’s what we lost: Not necessarily a president, but a 42-year-old man who should have decades more to use what he had learned in helping shape the public policy of his time.

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