Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bobby Kennedy's 'Moral Compass'

Spiritually, I suppose, Bobby Kennedy was father to a lot of people.

In reality, he had an exceptionally large family. He had 10 children during his lifetime and an 11th was born after he was assassinated in June 1968.

That's a bigger family than the one in which he grew up -- and Bobby Kennedy didn't exactly come from a small family. He was the seventh of nine children.

The other day, I reflected on my memories of Kennedy's assassination, using as one of my sources a New York Daily News article by Kennedy's oldest child, Kathleen, but mostly relying on my own (admittedly faulty) memory, remembering what that time was like for an 8-year-old who was witnessing what was one of the most remarkable years in American history unfold.

Today is the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's shooting. He lingered for more than 24 hours before he finally died, so tomorrow will be the actual anniversary of Kennedy's death.

And, to mark the occasion, Kennedy's oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, recalls, in the New York Times, "how my father listened with rare empathy to everyone."

Kennedy truly had gifts that this year's presidential candidates have lacked.

"He lived by a moral compass that others, less certain of their direction, looked to for guidance," Joseph Kennedy writes. "Even if what he asked was hard to hear and heed, he gave others the strength to believe not just in his guidance but in themselves."

Evan Thomas says in Newsweek that Bobby Kennedy's role in the 1968 campaign represents "one of history's great 'what ifs.'"

Thomas makes what may be one of the great understatements when he observes, "It's safe to say that his presidency would have followed a different course from that of Richard Nixon.

"And it may just be,"
he continues, "that American politics would not be endlessly refighting the 1960s" if Kennedy had not been assassinated and had gone on to be elected president.

There are, to be sure, some problems with this guessing game.

To win the nomination, he would have had to overcome Hubert Humphrey and the support he had from the party bosses across the country. These bosses still controlled who their state's delegates voted for, and "Kennedy was regarded as too 'hot' and too radical by the big city and Big Labor chieftains," Thomas points out.

If one makes the assumption that Kennedy could have overcome the obstacles within his own party, Thomas says, he "would have faced a formidable foe in Richard Nixon in November.

"The New Nixon was an expert at divide and conquer, and he was building a Silent Majority of white middle-class Americans fearful of rioting blacks and hippie college radicals."

Again, if one makes the assumption Kennedy could have overcome both Nixon and George Wallace in the general election, he would have faced his own difficulties enacting his progressive agenda.

Perhaps he could have done it.

"He was at once passionate and detached," Thomas writes, "a rare combination but essential in a leader."

By the way ...

There's been talk in Massachusetts recently that Joe Kennedy might be a candidate for his Uncle Ted's Senate seat -- if Edward Kennedy has to step down because of his brain tumor.

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