Fifty years ago this week, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. He had just won the Californian primary. We’ll never know whether Kennedy would have won the Democratic candidacy, nor the presidency, nor whether his administration might have been a success. But his campaign, which in its official form lasted less than three months, continues to be evoked as a gold standard for a certain kind of liberalism. Thurston Clarke’s book, The Last Campaign: Robert F Kennedy and 82 days that inspired America describes those short weeks: Kennedy’s attempts to challenge his fellow citizens during a time of turbulence that seems obviously relatable today.
Clarke has all the period detail that any book of this nature requires. His style is somewhat matter-of-fact and reminds me of certain Bible passages (even if the subject matter is quite different):
…Kennedy and Docking sat alone in Docking’s study. They wore bathrobes and ate roast beef sandwiches, and drank the Heineken that Docking had laid in because he knew it had been John Kennedy’s favourite beer.
We get more information than we possibly need about Ted Kennedy’s chicken sandwich in downtown Indianapolis. But among the digestive challenges and some delightful period detail (supporters attended Kennedy rallies with placards asserting BOBBY IS GROOVY), Clarke also describes the tension and the nerves in a campaign that seems over-foreshadowed in tragedy. JFK’s assassination had seemed like a one-off but after that of Martin Luther King still more were expected.
To try to pick out parallels with today in a post of this length would be ridiculously shallow and glib but here are a couple of points none the less.
It’s perhaps obvious, but Kennedy’s campaign was both personally and politically brave. There was a lot of criticism of Kennedy as an opportunist but if anything he was not calculated enough. He was on a moral mission, to be the advocate of those ignored by the comfortable, and he was happy to make the comfortable uneasy. Meanwhile his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was talking about the ‘politics of joy’. Clarke asserts that while the word ‘hope’ is now too easily and vaguely bandied about, Kennedy’s use was specific: ‘that Americans’ belief in their integrity and decency could be restored’.
Because Kennedy’s focus was moral, not economic, he reached those who had lost belief in the system. He was able to criticise what he called the ‘violence of institutions’ that weren’t working for those they were supposed to serve. He was critical of solutions that weren’t grounded in the communities they were meant to help. And he understood that while small towns have so many similarities with each other, it is what distinguishes each one from its peer group that provides pride. (There are perhaps parallels here with the work of the UK’s Centre for Towns.) He could point out that a person who has been badly served by law enforcement is unlikely to react well to a law and order agenda.
‘That’s your bloody GDP, not ours.’ That’s the famous heckle during a debate about the economic risks of Brexit. It’s often taken to mean that increased economic activity in London doesn’t benefit the regions. Kennedy would have understood this – but he would have also understood another meaning: that GDP measures the wrong thing. Speaking about the American GNP, Kennedy said: ‘It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…it measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.’ Intriguingly, British culture secretary Matt Hancock made reference to this concept in a recent speech when talking about a prospective civil society strategy.
And because Kennedy’s focus was moral, not economic, he had an appeal that disrupted the traditional left-right axis. There’s some evidence – explored by Clarke – that some of the votes that eventually went to segregationist George Wallace were actually in play for Kennedy but not other Democratic candidates. People believed that both Wallace and Kennedy were prepared to stick up for individual rights against the establishment (Kennedy’s journey to a place where he could reasonably be seen as an outsider was swift and it seems less calculated than the position of some who stake out that territory today).
Robert Kennedy’s assassination means that his ideas were never fully tested either in the polling booth or in government. Fifty years later the issues of poverty and inequality are still as relevant as ever. Now might be the time for political discourse to move outside economics. Thurston Clarke’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants to see how it was once tried.