Bobby Kennedy personified America’s better angels

Bobby Kennedy personified America’s better angels
© Getty Images

Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated a half-century ago. Since then, he has been lionized as an American hero — a defender of liberty and champion of civil rights for the downtrodden, the poor, and persecuted. 

Ironically, Bobby wasn’t always described in such glowing terms.

ADVERTISEMENT

Initially, many Americans were skeptical about John F. Kennedy’s younger brother. They saw him as ambitious, arrogant and aggressive. They even questioned his qualifications to be attorney general. When critics accused President Kennedy of nepotism, JFK disarmed them with humor, saying: “I can’t see that it’s wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.” 

 

Bobby proved he was up to the job. He took on some of the biggest challenges of the day, including organized crime, the Teamsters, civil rights violations. Arguably, his finest moment came during the Cuban Missile Crisis when his calm analysis and creative arguments helped the president avoid nuclear war.

No one was more devastated by JFK’s assassination than Bobby. Yet, he knew he had to soldier on. At the Democratic National Convention in 1964, he gave a moving speech imploring the audience never to give up. He explained that his brother identified with Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Said Bobby: “But we could apply it to the Democratic Party and to all of us as individuals. ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’"

Bobby Kennedy never forgot those promises. Not even when he had to deal with his brother’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Bobby and LBJ had never gotten along; Bobby even argued against adding Lyndon to the ticket in 1960. Their relationship worsened when Bobby and not Vice President Johnson became JFK’s chief confidant and adviser. Things deteriorated after the assassination; the new president didn’t trust the attorney general he inherited and believed Bobby was undermining his every move. When Johnson made it clear that, despite popular sentiment, he would not choose RFK as his running mate in 1964, Bobby eventually resigned from the cabinet to run for the U.S. Senate from New York. After his election, Bobby supported President Johnson on most issues but the two soon tangled over Vietnam War policy. 

Sen. Robert Kennedy — like John F. Kennedy before him — was loved by his supporters and despised by his detractors. Bobby’s supporters saw him as the rightful heir to the Kennedy legacy, while his political enemies denounced him as a ruthless carpetbagger. The charismatic young senator became an advocate for civil rights and more opportunities for minorities and have-nots; he promoted social justice and questioned America’s role in Vietnam. Those positions made him an idealistic hero to progressives but a demagogic villain for conservatives.

Bobby Kennedy eventually split with President Johnson over Vietnam. Kennedy did not support escalation of the war and sought a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. That anti-war position was a bold move at the time, but Bobby wasn’t yet ready to launch a primary challenge to Johnson. So, the nation’s peace movement turned to Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.). Kennedy didn’t announce his candidacy until after McCarthy weakened LBJ in the New Hampshire primary; the delay opened him to all the old charges that he was just a ruthless opportunist. Equally important, it divided the peace movement and lessened RFK’s chances of winning the nomination.

We’ll never know for certain whether Bobby would have won the Democratic nomination because he was assassinated after his stunning victory over McCarthy in the California primary. What we do know is that after California, Bobby still had a very steep hill to climb to become the Democrats’ nominee in 1968. Vice President Hubert Humphrey had the backing of President Johnson and most of the Democratic establishment, which controlled the nominating process at the convention. If Bobby could have won his party’s nomination — and that’s a very big “if” — he arguably would have had an easier time defeating Richard Nixon than did Humphrey, who was viewed as the establishment candidate. Since Humphrey came within a whisker of beating Nixon, Bobby — with a broader base and more passionate supporters — might have won.

America never got the chance to see if Bobby could have fulfilled the promise of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” His death turned out to be every bit as devastating and demoralizing as JFK’s. Arguably, America still is suffering the consequences of it. 

Had Bobby become president, the world might well be a different place today. Then again, like the old nursery rhyme says, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The reality is that America got Nixon instead of Bobby, war not peace, despair and division instead of hope and unity. That dark road eventually led to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE

Fifty years have passed since Robert F. Kennedy died on June 6, 1968, but his dream of a better America lived on. Given everything that’s going on today at home and abroad, Kennedy’s patriotism, principles, sense of decency and dedication to truth, liberty and justice for all are more relevant than ever. Bobby personified America’s better angels. He became a symbol for civil rights and aided those in need regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, class or religion. 

Bobby Kennedy’s significance and the bittersweet mood of the nation after his death inspired Dion’s 1968 hit record, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” The song linked RFK to other martyred American heroes and offered hope that change eventually would come. “Didn't you love the things they stood for? Didn't they try to find some good for you and me?” sang Dion. The elegy ended with a poignant question: “Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby, can you tell me where he's gone? I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill, with Abraham, Martin and John.”

Richard Aquila is a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University and a distinguished lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. A specialist in U.S. social and cultural history, his latest book is “Let's Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze” (2016).