In his youth and well into his thirties, Robert Kennedy was known as moralistic. He saw the world in black and white, in a perpetual conflict between good and evil. At first, corruption, greed and dishonesty were the evils that impelled him to act, but in the years after his brother’s death in 1963 he was moved to anger and action mostly by injustice, by wasted lives and opportunity denied, by human suffering. Kennedy, who had mastered the politics of attack, now practised the politics of moral uplift and exhortation. The street fighter had become a street preacher, the political pragmatist a prophet.
This was not a wholesale reinvention. The strain of moralism was consistent from his youth to the end of his life. In fact, people wrote of how from an early age this “moralistic” young man was always interested in the excluded and disempowered. Those who knew him before say that this “streak of caring” was always there. According to one friend he never lost that strain of moral commitment. Both as the political pragmatist of the 1950s and 1960s and as the compassionate idealist vying to change the world in the mid- to late 1960s, he believed in the eventual triumph of good over evil and prized services to others over personal gain. Both arose from his upbringing and early influences. They were not created but were brought to the forefront by the suffering he experienced after his brother’s assassination that had given him, in the words of a close friend, “a tenderness so rawly exposed, so vulnerable to painful abrasion that it could only be shielded by angry compassion to human misery or manifest itself in love and loyalty towards those close to him”.
In To Seek a Newer World he was honest enough to describe the two temptations that in the pursuit of his cause he had to show the courage to resist: what he called the danger of timidity and the lure of comfort. On the surface, this idea is reminiscent of JFK’s study, Profiles in Courage, but in fact the meaning is not the same. The essential attributes of courage turn out for Robert to be quite different: moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential quality for those who seek to change a world that yields only grudgingly and often reluctantly to change.
I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world. For the fortunate among us, the danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the safe and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But this is not the road history has marked for us, and all of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have made to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.
But what marked out the Robert Kennedy of the mid-1960s for so many who worked with him – and this perhaps most clearly revealed Robert’s deep moral and political convictions – was his passion for children, their fate and their fortune. His interest in practical and bold new policies to alleviate child poverty had started to develop when he was attorney general from 1961 onwards. He had become interested in the link between poverty and race and self-worth and crime, and he invited a group of juvenile offenders to his office. “If I had grown up in these circumstances,” he concluded, “this could have happened to me.” He met gang members in Harlem. He sponsored legislation aimed at preventing youth crime, travelled to Appalachia and sent President Johnson a memo on racial violence in urban centres.
Wherever Kennedy travelled he was drawn to children: he listened to them, held them, talked to them, got down to their level; these were not staged Kennedy appearances. A friend, columnist Mary McGrory, wrote that she often brought children from the local orphanage for parties at the Kennedy home: “It was total immersion on both sides. Kennedy needed children as much as they needed him.” He said that, aged three or four, slum children’s faces had “a certain vitality and beauty” that their well-off middle-class contemporaries did not have, but he speculated that at the age of eight to 12 the faces of these children changed as they sensed the oppressiveness of the world. When he met children in Brazil he begged them to stay on at school but left dejected, saddened because he saw not only the desperate need for proper investment in education, which now had to be fought for, but that they had uttered, at a deeper level, “a cry for love”. He wanted, as he commented himself, to bind up their wounds.
He “always saw poverty through the lens of children and young people”, said his adviser Peter Edelman. “So much of what he did was based on instinct. He was quite different from his cerebral brother in his mode of thought and action.” And in later years Robert Kennedy clung to a scrap of paper left on his brother’s desk at the end of the last cabinet meeting they attended together in 1963: an agenda scribbled over repeatedly with the word “poverty”. For Robert, this became his brother’s last will and testament – almost a summons to a lifetime of action.
Focus on poverty
So when Robert Kennedy returned from the depths that followed his brother’s death, he toured the country to see for himself the condition of America, to focus on the poverty that was often forgotten or unseen, and then to speak out on what changes needed to be made. One of his first visits was to meet impoverished black children in the Mississippi Delta in 1967, where he was shocked by what he saw. He was, he said, “appalled” by the open sores, the stench, the vermin, the lack of nutrition. He was visibly shaken when he rubbed a child’s stomach “and found it distended by starvation”. And he spoke out. What angered him was that this was the America of the 1960s, the richest nation on earth, yet here were “children with swollen bellies and running sores on their arms and legs that appeared not to be healing”. He reported he had seen “rat bites on the faces of young children even in the wealthiest city in the world, New York”. It profoundly affected his thinking. After one visit to the Mississippi, Edelman recalled:
His children say he came home to dinner that night deeply shaken and that he a man of few words so much of the time could not stop talking about what he had seen that day . . . it was one thing to say we needed more jobs or improvements in public education or a better welfare policy. It was something quite different to say we had near starvation in our rich country.
With this first-hand knowledge of the slums he talked openly of the “obscenity” of poverty. The word “unacceptable” became a favoured injunction that for him demonstrated moral outrage. As Kennedy said in Kansas in March 1968: “I have seen these other Americans . . . I have seen children starving, their bodies crippled from hunger.” Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, said that with the outrage he showed, Robert could “have been a revolutionary priest”.
But Robert Kennedy did not only expose; he organised and proposed changes in welfare policy that went beyond the offer of food stamps. He had to convince a disbelieving secretary of agriculture that in mid-1960s America there were still children dying of hunger. Robert Coles, a renowned child psychiatrist, recalled Senate hearings where Kennedy organised the medical evidence, working out how it could best be presented to overcome the doubts and even the cynicism of some colleagues. It eventually led to a select committee on hunger and malnutrition [. . .]
But what was new was not simply a more energetic and urgent focus on child poverty: it was to argue that the child poverty, inner-city, racial and slum problems that scarred 1960s America could only be solved through a new philosophy of government. Kennedy’s originality was that he was the first from the left not only to express major doubts about big bureaucratic approaches, but the first also to call for a reassertion of personal and social responsibility, an end to welfare dependency, the empowerment of the poor and partnerships for renewal that brought private as well as public sectors into urban regeneration. His starting point for empowerment was that work, not benefits, offered the way out of poverty, and he was the first from the left to put a renewed emphasis on personal responsibility as the key to civic renewal. “I’m not for a guaranteed income, I’m for guaranteed jobs,” he would say.
His was a muscular Democratic philosophy that founded his ideas of economic and social progress around a new self-reliance from the powerless and a new engagement from the powerful. He had come to the view that too much welfare left the poor dependent. He had seen an alternative to the old welfare in bottom-up community action during the short-lived War on Poverty, with communities strengthened by being rebuilt by the people who lived in them. And he was first to point out the sheer waste of unemployment and welfare costs to pay for it. New York, he said, spent more on welfare than on education. Putting his faith in the dignity of work and the potential of education, he asked Adam Walinsky to shape a programme founded on these principles for urban reconstruction in all major cities of the US. But his new philosophy of empowerment was also rooted in his embrace of the goals, the ideas and even the language of the civil rights movement. This embrace had come gradually – and perhaps reluctantly. In the early 1960s – and on the central issue of black rights – Martin Luther King had said of Kennedy that the moral passion was missing, and Robert Kennedy admitted later that he and his brother John were particularly reserved about King during that period of time.
Pathology of the ghetto
What Robert Kennedy saw in the ghettoes – the very scale of child poverty – converted him. He now talked of “the pathology of the ghetto”; and prefiguring a debate about the loss of community among the bigness of cities as “a besetting sin of the 20th century”; he lamented the decline of civic pride and “the destruction of thousands of invisible strands of common experience and respect which tie men to their fellows”. “The whole history of the human race had been the history of community,” he said, “and it was now disappearing.” He spoke eloquently of the moral imperative of civil rights and of “the violence that affects the poor, that poisons the relations between men because their skin is different”, and urged a radical programme of political, economic and social rights starting with votes and jobs. He concluded that “the violent youth of the ghetto is not simply protesting his condition but making a destructive and self-defeating attempt to assert his worth and dignity as a human being” [. . .]
The John F Kennedy who left an indelible impression on the consciousness of the world was also in private a man of irony and self-irony, with a cerebral detachment, “an idealist without illusions”. The Robert F Kennedy of 1968 was different, an idealist who saw what others regarded as illusions – the empowerment of the poor, the liberation of the dispossessed – as the only practical outcome for an America true to itself.
If JFK was a man who believed that greatness was defined by great deeds, RFK became a leader who exemplified the greatness of seeing and feeling the hurts and hopes of others. When David Frost asked the 1968 presidential candidates how they wanted their obituaries to read, Robert Kennedy simply replied: “Something about the fact that I made some contribution to my country or those who are less well-off. Camus wrote about the fact that this is a world in which children suffer” – he paused – “I’d like to feel that I’d done something to lessen that suffering.”
Both Kennedys left a legacy of poetry as well as power. But in Robert, tempered by the tragedy of his brother’s loss, there was vulnerability as well as steel. His appeal beyond leadership was an empathy that did not proclaim itself but was self-evident. To him, the work of change – to redress injustice, to bind up the wounds of violence and indifference, to heal the brokenness of the world – was above all a moral command.
Courage over caution
There could be no advance to a new world in 1968 without addressing the question of Vietnam. So was Kennedy’s advocacy of a negotiated peace settlement a conversion born of cal c ul at ion – as contemporaries alleged – to wrest the presid ential nom ination from Lyndon Johnson, or was it a brave act of self-sacrifice?
The facts are on Kennedy’s side. First, opposing the war in Vietnam was not, even in 1968, a way to win many votes. It was only after the Tet Offensive, in January and February 1968, that a (slight) majority of the American public sentiment went against the war; previously most Americans supported it, and a good number actually thought the US should commit more troops. Nineteen sixty-seven was known as “the year of the hawk”. Thus every time that Kennedy spoke out against the war, as he did forcefully in early 1966 and early 1967, he lost ground in the polls. Part of this was due to perceptions that he was pursuing a vendetta against Johnson. But mostly it reflected the fact that stoking anti-war sentiment was not yet a viable, mainstream political strategy [. . .]
Kennedy was caught between his deeply felt moral and strategic qualms about the war and his shrewd understanding of the political game, which suggested acquiescence as the safest approach. It was “an ordeal”, said Arthur Schlesinger of discussions in 1967 and 1968. He had never seen RFK so torn, so obviously divided, about anything. But in the end, Kennedy’s moral courage prevailed over his political caution. By the start of 1968, after repeatedly rebuffing those who had urged him to lead the movement to “dump Johnson” and end the war, Kennedy decided that he could simply not live with himself if he abdicated leadership. He took the greatest risk of his political career – the greatest leap into uncertainty – and, as he slid inexorably towards challenging Johnson, he finally spoke his mind about the war.
Kennedy started to allege that Johnson had departed from his brother’s policy of self-determination for the Vietnamese and that he had switched from one point of view to another. Johnson, he now believed, had Americanised the war. Once the US had waged war, he claimed, because the South Vietnamese had wanted the war. Now from that standpoint, Kennedy challenged the whole basis of the war, questioning the morality of intervention and the accuracy of the domino theory. He broke from the established view that if Vietnam fell so would the whole of Asia.
But when Kennedy finally broke publicly with Johnson and announced his bid for the presidency in March 1968, he had a mountain to climb. He knew that part of his political challenge was to energise newly enfranchised black voters and to win back the young, anti-war Democrats who had abandoned him for Senator Eugene McCarthy – an earlier, passionate and more consistent opponent of Vietnam. But, unlike McCarthy’s, Kennedy’s was no protest campaign; he intended to win [. . .]
A late arrival to the contest, Robert Kennedy did not achieve as much as he had hoped for in Indiana, where he won the primary with overwhelming black support but failed to win over the white middle and working classes. Then in California he won and became the commander of the anti-war cause. “On to New York,” he said, the last great primary, and moments later was assassinated. He had privately wanted to offer Eugene McCarthy a deal, that in return for his standing down he would be Kennedy’s secretary of state. A family friend, the journalist Joseph Alsop, warned him, “You must really give more weight to the support of what people call the establishment than I think you do.”
We will, of course, never know whether Robert Kennedy’s strategy would have prevailed. But the brilliance of Ken nedy’s courage was not so much in what he achieved in 1968, but what he foreshadowed for the generation to come.
Gordon Brown’s “Courage: eight portraits” will be published in June by Bloomsbury (£16.99)