INTRODUCTION-- Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, I've always been fascinated by Bobby, have read various biographies, even visited his gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, as you will read in this article. I should write a new and more fitting tribute. Instead I am reprinting a portion of the political manifesto that I wrote up in 2014 when I first started publishing The Liberator Today. I am trying to shed as many labels as I possibly can, and burying RFK helps. The context of this excerpt is an explication of the prophecy of Daniel Chapter 2: the statue of golden, silver, bronze, iron, and then iron mixed with clay. The rock which is the Messiah Jesus comes and pulverizes the whole of imperial history. (The last two episodes of our Hope videos feature Daniel 2.)
The Conservative Myth is one of two things: either of reconstruction or of exceptionalism. First, there can be an imagined golden age of headship, from which we have fallen, true, but which we can nonetheless reconstruct. For America, our golden age is the Founding Fathers and the Constitution is the deposit of gold tucked away, albeit insecurely, in our consciousness, a Fort Knox of our own imagination. Liberals are perceived as gold thieves. A book like Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United Statesis under persistent threat of ban (such as in the State Universities of Indiana under Governor Mitch Daniels, or in Denver School Districts) because it dares to speak of Columbus complicit in genocide or of Teddy Roosevelt complicit in betraying the Filipinos.
The second possible conservative myth however is that America stands outside, transcends, Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and outside history as a whole. We are followers of the Rock, perhaps even the hand that flung it. We are the allies of Jesus. The toes of the statue, the iron ones at least, are whomever we must combat to make the world safe for democracy. Unfortunately for the myth of American Exceptionalism, the explication of Daniel 2 above indicates that America participates in the extension of Caesar’s crushing power and that Jesus the Rock brooks no co-regents. Even Daniel, who might have reason to boast, humbly tells Nebuchadnezzar: “As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind” (Dan 2:30).
The Liberal Myth is more complicated. It does not look from the golden head down, but rather from the mixed toes up. It is keenly aware of the fourth kingdom: “Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others.” If it is “outside” of the statue, similar to one of the two Conservative myths, then it is under the statue’s feet, excruciatingly crushed beneath the weight of empire, and thus deserving of our pity and political activism. Its myth is that it may one day climb upwards to iron, to bronze, toward the goldenness that it knows it possesses in its self-righteousness. But here’s the crux of the myth: that it will have its chance of exercising iron’s power or gold’s superiority, but will be able to do so without being imperial itself. There is a power, they surmise, that is not made of Empire, nor of Christian faith, and they dream to one day wield it. It is the dream of Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farmwho continue to spout “four legs good; two legs bad,” even while being fitted for trousers.
Since this prospectus will more likely get me accused of “becoming liberal,” I want to examine one manifestation of the liberal myth in particular. When America’s first black president campaigned on “Hope and Change,” he was not channeling Martin Luther King, but rather Robert Kennedy. (Remarkably, Kennedy once said in a Washington Post interview in 1968: “In the next 40 years, a Negro can achieve the same position my brother has.” Obama was inaugurated forty years later.) In 1968, Bobby Kennedy was rallying black voters and young voters, and running a campaign of rock star proportions. His obvious goal was to finish the unfinished promise of a Kennedy presidency that had been interrupted by Oswald’s bullet and LBJ’s boorishness. His campaign (and its promise) however was also cut short and left unfinished.
Ronald Steel in his book In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy claims that both Kennedy brothers are shrouded in myth, and that the strength of their legacy (including JFK’s thousand days in office) is not what either of them accomplished, but rather in “what they would have done” if they had lived. They are enshrined in “counterfactuality:” what would have happened, but didn’t because Johnson and then Nixon were left in charge. For example, although JFK, and his brother the Attorney General whose fingers were in the foreign policy pie, are arguably most responsible for the Vietnam War, President Kennedy, the myth tells us, would have reversed course by 1964 and a President Robert Kennedy would certainly have done so in 1969, IF they had been allowed to live. And so now, Robert Kennedy’s destiny is also left unfinished. Bill Clinton famously flashed a photo of himself as a young Boys Stater from Hope, Arkansas shaking hands with President Kennedy in 1963, but President William Jefferson Clinton almost always invoked the spirit of his middle name instead. Clinton distanced himself within the Democratic Party, seeking a centrism that demanded, “it’s the economy, stupid!” and which presided over a welfare reform in 1996 that policy scholars now say was rife with racism. No, it was Barack Obama who undertook to finish Bobby Kennedy’s campaign. Obama certainly rallied the first youth vote since the Sixties, and the largest black vote. He possessed in spades the Kennedy sense of cool charm. He preached “Hope and Change” and vowed to take us out of a mired war that had grown tiresome, if not unpopular. John McCain by contrast was a bejowled Nixon.
Now we have thus had it in Barack Obama—a completed RFK campaign, a two-term JFK presidency. The myth has shed contrafactuality. How does it feel, liberal dreamer?
I once visited Arlington National Cemetery as a quick stop before a conference in Washington, DC. I wanted to visit, not John Kennedy’s gravesite, but his brother’s. I had just finished reading my second biography of RFK. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., author of Robert Kennedy and His Times, was a Kennedy insider and active in RFK’s 1968 campaign. He was well-versed in the myth-making of the Kennedy family and his book perpetuates it. As for me, JFK was president when I was born, unlike my older sister who was Eisenhowerian. Martin Luther King was assassinated on my sixth birthday. So the Kennedys and their era had an allure for me and I was first successfully seduced by a chapter on RFK in Robert Cole’s Moral Leadership, just as I was being seduced by the concept of moral leadership itself. But even as I was reading RFK biographies, what was “factual” about Kennedy’s life was enough to give me pause about what was mythically counterfactual. Who would Bobby Kennedy have been? Answer: likely what he was. Who would he have been? Answer: likely what Obama has been 2008-to-the-present. Those who want to lay the Liberal Myth to rest, like I believe I have done, should read the book mentioned earlier, In Love with Night. Steel is intrigued by the Bobby Myth and doesn’t intend to be iconoclastic, but his book helps you return to the other biographies and see Bobby Kennedy’s short life as this progression:
a privileged childhood under Joe Kennedy’s ambitious tyranny; a lackluster law school career; an accomplice to McCarthyism; chasing Jimmy Hoffa, Fidel Castro, and finally Lyndon Johnson as if chasing white whales; the assigned hatchet man for each of his brother’s campaigns; implicit in the Bay of Pigs debacle; obsessed with counter-insurgency and the assassination of foreign leaders; holding civil rights at arms length as Attorney General except when forced by others to act; reckless brinkmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis; turning to Greek philosophy instead of his Catholic faith for solace following his brother’s death; no challenge to the Warren Commission lest his brother’s alleged Cuban and Mafia connections come under scrutiny; peevish and petty towards his brother’s successor; disingenuous about opposition to the Vietnam War; courting blacks and youth to find a powerbase in the Democratic Party that didn’t belong to LBJ; courting poverty as an issue to embarrass LBJ’s failed Great Society; carpet bagging as a New York senator; equivocating on whether to run for President; begrudging and then betraying Eugene McCarthy who was the true anti-war candidate.
What I admire in Bobby Kennedy is what Robert Coles pointed out to me, the possibility of a moral leadership which reveals itself, as it did for Kennedy, in such places as the tar paper shacks of Appalachia, the empty bellies of Mississippi, the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the hopelessness of apartheid South Africa, or in his openhearted speech in Indianapolis on the night of King’s death. I remain in love with moral leadership, but any leadership which is built on myth, whose hope is not in the sure and jealous return of Jesus Christ, is vulnerable to its own Sirhan Sirhan, the crazed assassin. Letting the Bobby Myth die is a good way to let the liberal myth die. In one of Steel’s concluding paragraphs, he speaks instructively to us abolitionists in 2014:
The mythology that has been generated around Robert Kennedy in the years since his death is simply that: a mythology. Like many legendary figures, the Bobby of legend has been created by us. There is little, beyond hope and need, to lead us to believe that he would have bridged the divisions between blacks and whites, narrowed the chasm between rich and poor, dedicated himself to the values that inspire liberals, quickly ended a divisive war, or brought about the magical restoration of a mythical golden age. Only from his early death have we, as with his brother, created a heroic figure to fill our needs.
Don’t call me a liberal. I buried that myth on a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. I look for no golden boy to come wield power unimperialistically. Though I often fail, I try to keep my hope in Christ alone.