Robert Kennedy’s death came when America was on the cusp of transformation. It was changing from a racist, sexist, authoritarian, war-mongering society toward a society of more equal social and political justice – the kind that western Europe was adopting.
It has been all downhill since that fateful day in June 1968. Much of that progressive change was stalled for decades. Kennedy was uniquely positioned among politicians to bridge the widening divisions — a gaping hole, really — between lower income Blacks, Hispanics and middle class whites, without a college degree, all of whom were beginning to suffer the devastating effects of globalization, automation and the crumbling of the American Dream.
I believe that we would not have the pernicious, polarized politics we have today if he had lived. Our divisions would have been lessened. We would not today be on the brink of a second American Civil War.
In 1978, income for the 70% of Americans, without a college degree, began to decline which, along with enormous wealth gains for an elite, created the vast inequality we have today.
As a young 24 year old graduate student at Columbia University, I was to join the RFK campaign staff the following week.
The spring of 1968 had been exhilarating and tumultuous. It was the most exciting, exhilarating, period of the last five decades. College campuses across the country were seized with a revolutionary fervor.
Courageously Senator Gene McCarthy challenged a sitting President, Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy ran an energetic anti-war campaign against the carnage in Vietnam. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April. Students were protesting for change everywhere. The country was in dire need for someone who could bring the warring parties together and heal the wounds.
In March, Bobby Kennedy, with great anguish, decided to enter the presidential primaries and also contest the nomination of a powerful sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Facing angry crowds wherever he went, and on the verge of losing the Wisconsin Primary, Johnson declared that he would not seek re-election. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his candidacy, but declined to enter the primaries, relying on party bosses to deliver the needed delegates.
In the last week of May, McCarthy, and his army of idealistic young people, students, and intellectuals, astonishingly beat Kennedy in the Oregon Primary. The results of the June California primary would decide whether Kennedy’s quest for the nomination was at all viable. Robert Kennedy was relying on the more traditional voting blocs, his people: the Latinos, Blacks, and working class poor whites. The excluded ones.
On the night of the California primary, I stayed up until 3 AM waiting on the final results. After Kennedy’s victory speech, I dozed off in a contented sleep. Minutes later, a commotion on television woke me up. Kennedy had been shot in the head. Nobody knew anything, but everybody knew everything. The nightmares began. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stay awake. I kept waking up thinking it was all a dream….. but the television was still on…. He was shot in the head…..He was shot in the head….. over and over again…until he finally died 26 hours later.
The images of Kennedy lying in a pool of his own blood in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen in Los Angeles are forever seared into my brain.
Is it possible that the act of one mad man could so drastically alter the course of history?
With the hindsight of 50 years, I can clearly see how different the world would have been had Bobby Kennedy lived. His assassination was even more significant, and ruinous, than the deaths of his brother, John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King Jr.
Kennedy’s untimely death came at a moment when the world was on the verge of radical change — between Cold War enemies and post Cold War non-violence, between an authoritarian society and social and political justice — and much of that change was stalled and derailed in the U.S. for decades to come after Kennedy was assassinated and Richard Nixon was elected president.
In the five years after his brother was shot, RFK had witnessed a society in turmoil.
The success of the Civil Rights movement – and the hope that it had begotten – inspired and empowered students all over the world. Evil, in the form of racism, sexism, and Cold War colonialism, could be challenged and defeated. From this moment on, it was our duty, as the children of a prosperous society, to question everything and demand a change for good.
A global uprising of exhilarating hope that change was possible spread to students and young people all over, amplified by television images and electronic media reports as never before.
The protests leapt from country to country like wildfires feeding on each other.
It was the time of the Prague Spring and, later that summer, there were massive protests against Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia. There were student demonstrations worldwide: in Poland, a roiling resentment against Russian domination, while Italy and Germany erupted in anti-Vietnam War protests, and young Mexicans were busy fighting against chronic inequality and a feudal ruling class.
In France, 40 million students and workers went on strike for the entire month of May 1968, protesting the Algerian war and worker injustices.
And Robert Kennedy, a compassionate Catholic, already appalled by injustices towards the disenfranchised, was inspired by the possibilities.
He picked up the torch and rhetoric of the times: “Let us not have tired answers.”
“Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream of things that never were and say why not.”
Kennedy was the perfect messenger, the royal heir, who could bridge the divide between the old world and the newly emerging one. He had strong ties to the traditional Democratic Party machine that had elected his brother and yet, was able to harness the energy, anger and hope that the post-WWII generation – the largest ever – was producing.
RFK was a rare mix of radical compassion: somewhat conservative personal values, self sacrifice, personal discipline, stoicism and patriotism, rooted in moral conviction. He was also perfectly attuned to his times.
He had a perpetual sense of outrage at the racial, political, and social injustices that were crippling our country.
For most political observers there is no question that Bobby would have won the nomination. After winning the California primary, Kennedy was a scant 108 delegates behind Humphrey. He was picking up momentum, sucking the air from the McCarthy crusade. McCarthy supporters would have united with the Kennedy delegates. Kennedy had a unifying idealism that would have brought the party together and probably even won the support of the machine politicians like Mayor Daley.
And Kennedy would have also beaten a flawed and awkward Richard Nixon.
As it happened, the chaos and violence of that summer’s Chicago Democratic convention triggered a backlash that ensured Nixon’s narrow victory over Humphrey. Nixon’s trump card was a “Secret Plan” to end the Vietnam war.
But despite Nixon’s “Secret Plan,” the Vietnam War raged on for another seven years, at a cost of 38,000 more young American lives.
The nasty Nixon era was followed by a dreary progression of conservative, uninspiring leaders — Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden. Even the best of these Presidents, however progressive, could never manage to forge a coalition for meaningful change.
The grand dreams and hopes of 1968 were gone.
Almost immediately after the spring assassinations, the movements that had sprouted in the sixties began to splinter, and parts turned violent. The Civil Rights movement spawned the Black Liberation Front and thuggish elements of the Black Panthers. Some SDS fringe groups evolved into the violent Weathermen.
But what if Robert F. Kennedy had lived?
It is an irresistible, tantalizing, and admittedly, unanswerable question.
But I can dream that Nixon would have faded away. George McGovern would not have been nominated in 1972; the Democratic Party would not have splintered. Jimmy Carter would not have been elected president in 1976. Kennedy would have been President for eight years and inspired a new generation of idealistic leaders to carry on his vision.
Kennedy would have brought us to a golden age of justice, progressive legislation, and a compassionate Supreme Court. Nixon and Ford nominated and confirmed five conservative Supreme Court Justices.
Kennedy would have been more supportive of the environmental movement (The Kyoto treaty would have been signed), the Women’s Liberation movement, and the Gay Rights movement.
Kennedy aide and speechwriter, Peter Edelman, has said that there is no question that RFK would have negotiated an early end to the Vietnam War by 1969 and worked hard toward racial reconciliation and the narrowing of the income gap at home.
Kennedy would have adopted a wiser, more restrained foreign policy, (more like the advanced Europeans countries of today) and would not have felt the need to aggressively bully the rest of the world. He would not have felt the need to create the American Empire we have today. We would not have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. America would have aided Russia’s nascent democracy after the collapse of communism in 1990 and prevented the economic woes and devastation that led to the election of Vladimir Putin and eventually the Ukrainian invasion.
With a calming of the international waters – and abandonment of the belief that our great military might and wealth could impose an American solution to every international problem – foreign relations and The Cold War would have been far less tumultuous. The American Embassy in Iran might not have been seized; the oil crisis and the recessions of the seventies and eighties would have been milder, without the additional seven years of crippling Vietnam War debt.
We would have developed a different, easier relationship with the rest of the world. Gentler, not so overbearing.
Robert Kennedy has a continuing, extraordinary hold on our imagination, not because he was a martyr, but because he, (and his brother) represented hope.
The Golden years that might have been continue to haunt us.
If Kennedy had lived, I don’t believe that we would have stayed in Vietnam for another 7 years, invaded Iraq, nor do I believe that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center would have happened. Thus, I do not believe we would have invaded Afghanistan. We would now have a better, more admired, safer country, a more humane nation, and a more generous democratic society.
We were cheated out of the chance to see how his ideas and dreams would have played out. RFK was not a perfect man, none of us is, but he was the right man at the right time and would have moved us gracefully into a new era.
Bobby never failed us. He never grew old. He never sold out.
He opened up a vision for the future. Sadly, he was denied the opportunity to lead us there, but he showed us the way.
His legacy lives on, albeit slowly.
“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” –Edward M. Kennedy.
Blake Fleetwood covered urban development for the New York Times and taught at New York University.