A lot of the gauzy image of RFK owes to his horrible killing and a lot of romantic revisionism by liberals, just as they did with JFK and the contrived “Camelot” legend after JFK’s killing in 1963. Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Robert Kennedy’s reputation is if he had not been killed. First of all, it is unlikely he’d have won the Democratic nomination in 1968. On the morning of the California primary 50 years ago today, Hubert Humphrey remarked to an aide: “I want Bobby to win big. Number one, there are too many party leaders opposed to him for him to have any real chance of winning the nomination. Number two, since Oregon [where Kennedy had lost to McCarthy], he can’t use the argument that he went right through the primaries.” Bobby didn’t win big; his margin over McCarthy was only 5 percent—short of the landslide he needed. Incidentally, Kennedy played the racial demagogue with McCarthy in their one TV debate, with the totally false charge that “You say you want to move 10,000 black people to Orange County. . .” So much for the “racial healer.”
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The more durable strain of romantic myth is that King and Kennedy’s killings spelled the end of hope, the end of the dream, that America could redeem itself through politics. “With King and Kennedy dead,” New Left historian Todd Gitlin wrote, “a promise of redemption not only passed out of American politics, it passed out of ourselves,” and Carl Oglesby of the SDS said “When these two heroes were killed, the movement was silenced. The whole procedural foundation of our politics was shattered.” This is nonsense, an exercise in selective memory and convenient revisionism: prior to their death the Left had little use for King, and no use for Kennedy. Remember that after King’s killing Stokely Carmichael said, “Bobby Kennedy pulled that trigger, just as well as anybody else.” Kennedy especially was a threat to the New Left precisely because he appealed to the same youth constituency the New Left needed to survive and prosper. Kennedy’s position on Vietnam was to the right of McCarthy (and was not that far different from the “Vietnamization” policy that Nixon later embraced). Tom Hayden always made great show about attending RFK’s funeral, holding his Cuban army cap in hand, tears streaming down his face. Yet only a few days before Kennedy was killed Hayden had referred to Kennedy as “a little fascist.”
I’m not sure how much room Hayden had to talk on that last subject, but as RFK told Kansas State U in March of 1968, quoting from early “Progressive” William Allen White, “If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all their youthful vision and vigor then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better the world for tomorrow.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.