Column: Remembering Bobby Kennedy
Fifty years have now passed since the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. It was just after midnight on June 5, 1968, while celebrating his victory in the California Democratic Primary, that a young and embittered Palestinian American named Sirhan Sirhan (resentful of the candidate's support for Israel) shot Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy died a day later at the age of 42.
Bobby Kennedy was a complicated man, as evidenced by endless studies of his political and personal life. Conventional wisdom is that he started out as a conservative (serving as counsel to Sen. Joe McCarthy's committee to expose communists in government and the entertainment industry in the 1950s) and evolved into a liberal (becoming in the 1960s a champion of civil rights and opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam).
Truth be told, the conventional wisdom of Bobby Kennedy's so-called political odyssey misses the point. Though it was true that he became more passionate about civil rights in the 1960s, he had already been on the side of civil rights. And he never relinquished his anti-communist sentiments which he had played out in the 1950s. His opposition to the Vietnam War as a presidential candidate was not a product of being soft on communism, but a realization that the U.S. was defending a corrupt and undemocratic regime in South Vietnam which was not doing its share to resist the communist aggression from North Vietnam.
An interesting side to Bobby Kennedy (during his so-called liberal years) were his misgivings over the government resorting to the massive welfare state created by President Lyndon B. Johnson. How is it that Bobby Kennedy, embraced by the masses as a liberal icon, had a view of the welfare state comparable to Ronald Reagan's view of government assistance to the poor? The answer is that Bobby Kennedy harbored a sincere conviction that welfare harmed those it was intended to help.
Many criticized Bobby Kennedy's entrance into the 1968 presidential campaign as opportunistic. He announced his candidacy after Sen. Eugene McCarthy ran a close race against Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary. This was after Kennedy stated that he was not running for president. But it was no secret that Bobby Kennedy had presidential ambitions. Though he was inclined to wait until 1972, the McCarthy showing in New Hampshire exposed Johnson as vulnerable. He had to get into the race in 1968.
Comparisons of Bobby Kennedy to his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, are inevitable. But whereas President Kennedy possessed an abundance of charisma, Bobby Kennedy had more of what could be described as magnetism. His passion knew no boundaries and his followers loved it.
Bobby Kennedy wanted to be a symbol of unity. He wanted to be the candidate of both working class white voters and the poor and minorities. And he delivered on this goal, being a champion of self help to the millions trapped in welfare, while being a champion of organized labor. As for Bobby Kennedy's anti-communism, his opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam never infringed on his view of the now defunct Soviet Union as an agent of evil or his aim to eventually depose Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Then there was Bobby Kennedy's strong support for Israel (which led to his assassination). Ironically, Bobby Kennedy was shot by Sirhan a year to the day after Israel launched its preemptive strike in what would become the Six Day War. He was fond of pointing to Israel's use of military force as a practical and justified measure, as opposed to the quagmire of Vietnam in which the U.S. was involved.
What cannot be denied about Bobby Kennedy is his strong belief in an America that could be even greater. He believed in and fought for an America kind to the disadvantaged and strong in the face of adversaries.
John O'Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer.