Sunday, June 1, 2008

This Day in American History (RFK-McCarthy Debate)

June 1, 1968—In the last debate before the climactic California primary, Robert F. Kennedy won the press war of expectations about the outcome with several unexpected thrusts—but a pro-forma statement in support of Israel clinched a viewer’s decision to assassinate him a few days later.

The sudden, ghastly end to RFK's life has tended to put out of focus the nature of his campaign in these final days. I think it’s useful to re-examine why he evoked so many passionate responses, both pro and con.

Bobby Kennedy, in All His Varieties

Of the three brothers who ran for President, Bobby fascinates me the most. With his quick wit, ironic distance, and automatic assumption that his private affairs would be kept out of public life, Jack seems like a Regency aristocrat. In the tributes that have poured in since the revelation of his grave medical condition, it's now more recognized than ever that Teddy is one of the barons of Capitol Hill. His knowledge of where each vote can be found would have made him a success starting as the lowliest ward heeler job, even if he'd never been born into a political dynasty.

Bobby was something different entirely. Without his older and younger brothers' personas, he could slip into any role outside of his time and place that you can imagine and still somehow fit. His churchgoing piety and deep religious commitment could have pushed him into the priesthood (whether he'd be a liberation theologian or monsignor to a cardinal is another story). He could be the classic political boss in a big-city machine—cutting whatever deal he had to, ruthless when he needed to be—or, with his passion and fire for the oppressed, join a revolution.

Some of that quicksilver quality was seen in an incident I commented on previously: his
powerful impromptu speech on the night of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "It feels safe to say that no one else in American public life would have quoted Aeschylus' Agamemnon to an angry black crowd on the day that King was killed," former Bill Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer noted a week or ago, in an article for the New York Observer.

Anxiety on the Eve of Debate

Bobby’s entrance into the race was so sudden that the campaign had little if any time to organize. Though he scored some successes (notably in Indiana), a loss in Oregon to
Sen. Eugene McCarthy gave a severe pummeling to the Kennedy political operation’s reputation for being as smoothly run. The candidate found himself badly needing a victory in the winner-take-all California primary in early June. He even reversed his previous position that he would not debate McCarthy only Hubert H. Humphrey were invited, too.

In all but one way, Bobby’s political base in the primaries resembles Hillary Clinton’s today: principally in its heavy reliance on the white working-class (read: ethnic Catholic) and Hispanic voters. Barack Obama has inherited McCarthy’s base of the more college-educated, secular progressive voter. Obama’s candidacy has prevailed for two reasons: a) the black vote has gravitated to him rather than Clinton, and b) while the union workers that Kennedy could rely on has decreased over time, the proportion of college students and African-Americans has grown.

Going into the debate, RFK and his staff did not have a lot of reason to be confident. While Bobby’s speeches were eloquent, they were staff-written and rehearsed. It was a miracle that he delivered such an impassioned address on the night of the King assassination, but it might simply have been a product of emotions (especially the anguish over his own brother’s death) and deep reading finally given an outlet.

Bobby didn’t shine as well in a debate. It was surprised to discover a couple of years ago that he had not performed so well in a May 15, 1967 with the new governor of California, Ronald Reagan. (Jimmy Carter and his handlers in 1980 would have done well to check
the transcript of the RKF-Reagan debate to understand what a dangerous opponent they were facing.) When asked why Kennedy rejected repeated invitations to appear on his show “Firing Line,” William F. Buckley Jr. quipped, “Why does baloney reject the grinder?” McCarthy, on the other hand, had much more of a reputation for being articulate and witty.

The debate between the two Democrats was held on a Saturday night in San Francisco on the K.G.O. station in San Francisco. ABC news broadcaster Frank Reynolds served as moderator, with journalists Bob Clark and Bill Lawrence the chief questioners.
According to Evan Thomas’ account, the exhausted candidate was handed “about two pounds” of briefing material the night before, only to fall asleep with his beloved dog Freckles by his side. That left an all-day round for the day of the debate for preparation. RFK was determined to be as non-specific as possible about whether he had authorized FBI wiretaps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Outpointing McCarthy

Kennedy still did not shine in this static format (more like a joint press conference than a freewheeling exchange of views), but he did manage to underscore differences with McCarthy on policy matters rather than reasons of ambition, which those “Clean for Gene” so often accused him of harboring. In a point recently echoed faintly in the Clinton-Obama marathon, Kennedy—himself a Vietnam War opponent—took McCarthy to task for willingness to negotiate an end to the war with the Viet Cong. Two more exchanges were even more controversial.

McCarthy’s suggestion for transporting African Americans out of the impoverished inner cities to areas in the suburbs where there were greater employment opportunities brought a response from Kennedy that at the time even deeply dismayed many on the candidate’s own staff: “You say you are going to take 10,000 black people and move them into Orange County?”

Reading this sentence in isolation, I was ready to accept the usual historical verdict: that RFK had gotten off a cheap shot that was a blatant appeal to white-ethnic voters (regarded then and now as something that in the ‘70s was called the “Archie Bunker voter” and in the 1980s, only somewhat more kindly, as the “Reagan Democrats”). But for Kennedy's sterling civil rights record, that sentence would have been more widely decried had it come from a Nixon or Agnew.

The sentences immediately following, however, provide a more understandable—and liberal—context: “You take them out where 40 percent of them don't have any jobs at all, that's what you are talking about. But if you are talking about hitting the problem in a major way, taking those people out, putting them in the suburbs where they can't afford the housing, where their children can't keep up with the schools, and where they don't have the schools for the jobs, it's just going to be catastrophic. . . . [W]e have to face the fact that a lot of these people are going to live here [in the ghettos] for another several decades. And they can't live under the conditions that they are living under at the present time."

McCarthy found himself on the defensive on a second point: Kennedy’s charge that he wanted to overcharge Israel for aircraft. In contrast, Kennedy promised more aircraft for Israel. According to Thomas, RFK himself believed that he had “pandered” to the Jewish vote with this promise, in an attempt to defuse the absurd charge that he was anti-Semitic. (In fact, from touring Israel in 1948, Kennedy had come away much impressed with the new nation's courage and determined that America had to help it survive.)

The Opening Salvo of Arab Terrorism

Kennedy’s promise of continued, even heightened, support for Israel had a far more fateful consequence outside of votes, however. His statement could not have reassured one Palestinian-American, who, that very day, had been so angered by a prior photograph of the senator wearing a yarmulke outside a synagogue that he had purchased a box of ammunition for his .22 caliber pistol.

Several observers noted that McCarthy was not as sharp as he could have been, allowing Kennedy to get by with a mediocre if gaffe-free performance. Four days later, Kennedy beat McCarthy by 4.5% in the California primary. He still had an uphill fight for the nomination against Humphrey, who had been methodologically picking up votes in caucuses while his rivals engaged in fratricidal conflict that divided the anti-war left. But at least Kennedy now had the state he absolutely needed if he hoped to remain a viable candidate through the convention two months later in Chicago.

Nobody, least of all the candidate, could have guessed that the young Palestinian-American who had purchased the box of ammunition, Sirhan Sirhan, would be waiting for him in the Ambassador Hotel on the night of his triumph. Nor did anyone realize at the time that the resulting assassination, far from being senseless, was in fact one unaffiliated terrorist’s inauguration of more than 30 years of steadily encroaching thrusts against America and its institutions that would climax on September 11, 2001.

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