Campaigning in 1968

I’ve always been a pretty ardent fan of Robert F. Kennedy, and he remains among one of my favorite presidents despite his never achieving that title. I’m not sure if it’s my tendency to glorify the momentous occasions of 1968 or my intrinsic need to lend a hand to the under-privileged, but he always appealed to me as a person and as a policy maker. So this summer I finally got around to reading Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign, a book chronicling Kennedy’s presidential campaign right up to his assassination.

The book itself reads from a very pro-Kennedy perspective, and analyzes his speeches and his talking points from almost a purely positive angle. Clarke critiques Kennedy usually from the point of view of others, citing campaign staffers’ dissent on his decision to spend more time on the Indian reservations than in the cities, for example. But almost all of these are soon rejected by how Kennedy was right all along. He alludes to Kennedy’s missteps usually the same way. Looking at how Kennedy barreled into the campaign life and challenged virtually every audience he encountered, there are more faults than Clarke allows to reach the paper.

This aside, the book tried to really tug at who Kennedy really was, and how he had changed from the cold politician of 1960 to the voice of the silenced in 1968. While the book sometimes got repetitive with its references, the anecdotes were often a reminder of just how big this campaign became to people who really shouldn’t have been all that supportive of Kennedy in the first place. And the sad truth of reading the book is seeing how little has changed when it comes to the issues Kennedy cared about: peace, poverty, and racial equality. While many candidates campaign until the election, then plan until they take office, and then begin to make changes, Kennedy thought he had to get to work early.

As Clarke explains, Kennedy hoped that – when he was President – he would provide public funds for documentaries of America’s impoverished in order to show the entire country what was happening in places like Cleveland, Mississippi, where he was struck by the poverty of the Delta region. During his campaign, he lamented that he could not wait until he became president, and the way he carried his campaign is proof of his effort to use it as a vehicle for more than his candidacy but for his message of ending poverty.

Kennedy never played to his audience or shied away from his convictions – he didn’t always succeed, but he always tried to change their minds instead of changing his. It’s sad to think that nobody has really run a campaign like this since. Clarke’s book is full of campaign speeches where Kennedy would tell black audiences that rioting was unacceptable and tell white audiences that law enforcement was too brutal. When a college student (exempted from the draft) told Kennedy he thought America should stay in Vietnam, Kennedy told him to enlist. And somehow Kennedy was able to appeal to union bosses that hated his work at the Justice Department, backlash whites that thought he incited violence, and liberals that remembered his work for Joseph McCarthy.

Despite all of this, the book slants Kennedy anyways. It critiques those who challenged Kennedy’s “victory” in Indiana, and it paints Eugene McCarthy as not worthy of the presidency. While it tells a brilliant story about the eighty-two days that Kennedy crossed the nation and roused Americans’ hearts, it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ll be on the look out for some more objective pieces on the ’68 election – if you know of one, holler.

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