< "The Last Campaign" by Thurston Clarke

Comments by Peter Edelman

I’m pleased to “host” this discussion of Thurston Clarke’s excellent and moving . I was of course involved in Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign and so I have some first-hand knowledge of the subject. Mr. Clarke has done meticulous research and has, I think, captured the feeling of the time, the dynamic of the campaign, and, most important, the complexity of the man. So if I may, I would begin by recommending, strongly and enthusiastically, that anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book do so.

I’m hardly objective about Robert Kennedy. He was the most formative and influential figure in my life. Not only did he give me the opportunity to see, learn about, and connect in a personal way to poverty and racism in our country but, of greater significance, I saw, day after day, his passion and determination – as Thurston Clarke conveys so well – to make a difference in righting these wrongs. And, most crucial, I met my wife because of Robert Kennedy – the gift of a lifetime.

There are so many questions to wonder about. Would RFK have been nominated? Elected? What would he have accomplished as President? How would America be different today if he had been elected?

I have beliefs, none provable, obviously. I think RFK would have been nominated, because I think enough of the key Democratic power brokers would have taken the results in the primaries to mean that he offered the best chance to defeat Nixon. Whether he would have defeated Nixon seems to me to be an easier question. After all, Humphrey almost won, and would have if he had been allowed to come out for stopping the bombing of North Vietnam just a couple of weeks earlier. RFK would have ended the war by engaging in immediate negotiations leading to a rapid withdrawal of American troops in return for nationwide elections in Vietnam. He would have devoted his presidency to working on the problems of poverty and racial inequality about which he cared so deeply. How much progress he would have made is another question – these are difficult issues, to say the least. Of course he would have accomplished much more than Nixon did.

But any great President – and I think he would have been a great President – has a halo effect that lasts just so long, and it is now 32 years since RFK’s two terms would have ended. We would have avoided having Nixon as President and therefore there would have been no Watergate. And we would have avoided the further killing and the further dividing of the country by the continuance of the war. So the worst stimuli for the loss of confidence in the efficacy and worth of government would not have occurred. That’s pretty significant.

An important aspect of Clarke’s book is his conveying of Kennedy’s unique and iconoclastic political philosophy, which Clarke quotes Jack Newfield as saying was the product of “radical ideas and somewhat conservative values.” (P. 178). Clarke continues on that page with a thoughtful paragraph that describes why the usual labels of “liberal” and “conservative” did not fit Kennedy. On p. 108, Clarke quotes from the memorable speech that RFK gave at the Cleveland City Club the day after Dr. King’s assassination, in which he talked about “the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay” that results in “the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in winter.” The key phrase there is “the violence of institutions” – a phrase that speaks volumes. It represents a theme that Kennedy developed in many of his speeches as a Senator, as well as in his presidential campaign. And there are numerous other places in the book where Clarke’s extensive quotes from Kennedy’s speeches reveal his broad critique of major institutions both public and private.

Many people are asking how the current time and especially the candidacy of Barack Obama compare with 1968 and RFK. Like 1968, this is a time of crisis, and we face now, as then, the issue of how to extricate ourselves from a war we should never have begun in the first place. We are deeply divided as a country, although not for exactly the same reasons as in 1968. And Senator Obama is a charismatic, inspirational, brilliant candidate who is reigniting a sense of hope and a willingness to participate in the political process, especially among minorities and young people, that we have not seen since Robert Kennedy’s time.

At the same time, there is a major difference. Robert Kennedy was a “hot” candidate, criticized by some as too hot, too hot especially for the small screen in people’s living rooms that was the only way in which millions of people had a chance to see him. Barack Obama is a “cool” candidate, and some of his ardent supporters feel, especially at the moment, that he needs to get hotter, and to express some anger at what is being allowed to happen to millions of struggling families in the country now.

One difference, and something that disturbs me deeply, is the eerie lack of activism about the issues that confront us. Perhaps those who are disturbed about the direction of the country from a progressive point of view are channeling their energy into the Obama campaign and, if that is so, I suppose I am satisfied. But there should be a national wave of disbelief about the propaganda concerning the success of the so-called “surge” in Iraq. The country has turned against the war, but unless we elect Obama, there is no telling when we will be out of Iraq. People seem quite passive about that. The economy is in deep trouble, and there is real pain among millions of people around the country, and yet people seem not to be noticing that McCain has no credible plan to do anything about it. Perhaps our national lack of confidence in government and our disbelief in the credibility of what any candidate says have brought us to a point where too many people really don’t think it matters who wins. If I am right about that, the parallel between Barack Obama and Robert Kennedy may be beside the point.

Thurston Clarke has given us an informative and revealing portrait of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. I thank him for that.

Peter Edelman

Peter Edelman