Bobby Kennedy is the greatest president America never had

The New York senator and younger brother of president John F. Kennedy, was assassinated 50 years ago this week. His legacy has never been more vital.

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The gun shot was so loud it shut up the cheers. Several more bangs followed, in a hurried cadence. Panic set in. Shrieks resonated across the Ambassador Hotel, from the ballroom all the way to the kitchens.

A manhunt got underway, and the shooter was caught immediately. He was no cold-blooded hitman, just a troubled guy.

His victim – Bobby Kennedy, senator, leading presidential candidate, and brother to president John F. Kennedy – lay wounded on the cold concrete of the hotel pantry. A 17-year-old busboy, Juan Romero, jumped next to him. He nestled Bobby’s bloody head against his shoulder. They locked eyes, and he noticed one of Bobby’s eyelids blinking uncontrollably.

“Is everybody okay?” asked the politician. Romero nodded. Bobby’s gaze wandered away. Sensing the end was nearing, Romero squeezed his rosary into the dying man’s stiff hands.

Each second felt like an eternity. Bobby mumbled, to no one in particular, to himself:“Everything’s going to be okay.” Then a smile appeared on his cheeks. Could Bobby be at peace with his fate? That’s what journalist Pete Hamill, who had been covering Kennedy’s campaign, thought when he saw his friend smiling: It’s “as if he knew it would all end this way.”

A few minutes after that, Bobby lost consciousness. 24 hours later, in the night of June 6th 1968, he died in Los Angeles.

This was bigger than personal tragedy. It was an American nightmare, one that haunt us to this day. In his final speech, Bobby – who was running for president – had promised the boisterous crowd: “We can end the division in America.”

***

Robert “Bobby” Kennedy is something of a mystery. Everyone knows about his mythical older brother John – the dashing president, cut down in his prime, the hope of a generation. Many too have heard of his younger brother Ted – lion of the US senate, famous for his advocacy of universal healthcare, and infamous for his murky role in the Chappaquiddick incident, which left a woman dead. But fewer understand Bobby Kennedy. What was he really like?

The first clue can be found in the setting of his murder.

As far as political assassinations go, Bobby’s is pretty prosaic. Caesar was stabbed to death in the magnificent chamber of the Roman Senate, Danton was guillotined in the public square. Che Guevara was executed outside a hut, after days of torture. Bobby’s own brother, John, was shot while waving to legions of admirers from a shiny convertible. Bobby, instead, was killed as he stepped into a hotel pantry room. Not exactly cinematic stuff. He was surrounded by aides, a few journalists, and immigrant kitchen workers like the one that helped him, Romero.

The two had actually crossed paths earlier, when Romero delivered Bobby room service. “He shook my hand, I didn’t ask him,” Romero later said. “He made me feel like a regular citizen, he made me feel like a human being.”

To reach out with an open hand, to make outsiders and pariahs feel like full-fledged individuals, to remind the forgotten they are remembered, those were the gifts of Bobby Kennedy. He had an almost spiritual ability to soothe and ease other people’s pain.

Perhaps because he was an expert in the domain: suffering was part and parcel of his existence. The blue-blooded Bobby, who mingled in elite circles and had affairs with movie stars, grew close to those souls society had neglected. The poor and malnourished, African-Americans, farmers, immigrant labor, soldiers sent to be slaughtered in Vietnam, the disillusioned youth looking for life’s meaning. Bobby Kennedy wanted to help the less fortunate, those politics usually ignores and often injures.

It’s fitting, then, that he was shot somewhere as modest as the pantry of a luxury hotel – a place populated by the indigent he had sworn to serve. Bobby Kennedy died like he lived: With humility. But it took him decades of trials and tribulations, sorrow and disenchantment, to get there.

***

Bobby grew up in the long shadow of his esteemed family. His father, the controversial businessman Joseph Kennedy Sr, had presidential dreams for his older brothers, Joe Jr. and John. But from Bobby, who he considered the “runt” of the clan, he expected only unflinching allegiance. And Bobby, a loner by temperament, abided. Eager to please, he took on his supporting role in silence.

In college, Bobby was bored. All he cared about was playing football. The contact sports transformed him. It was a way to show his old man he, too, could be powerful. In a few short years, Bobby went from artless introvert to shrewd operator – one able to devise cunning strategies and crush opponents on and off the field. He understood that his future profession, politics, was like football a game of inches. Every vote, every point was worth fighting for. The scoreboard was everything, rules didn’t count if the referee wasn’t looking, and remorses were for losers.

In 1951, Bobby travelled across Asia with John, then a US congressman. It was the first time the two brothers really hung out. John saw in this meaner, leaner Bobby the political hit-man that would help him achieve his ambitions. That trip sealed a partnership that would change America.

A year later, at only 26, Bobby successfully managed John’s campaign for the Senate. He may have been green, but he had already mastered the dark arts of politics… or at least, almost. To perfect his education, Bobby’s father arranged for him to work under family friend and senator Joe McCarthy, the right-wing crackpot firebrand behind the Red Scare – a conspiracy theory that alleged communist spies had infiltrated American society. Bobby was more reactionary than progressive, and he relished conflict and the thrill of triumph – no matter the costs to others.

By 1960, he had calmed down a little. Bobby had finally proven himself, in the cruel eyes of his father, as a worthy Kennedy. He didn’t need to be so aggressive all the time. After helping John get to the White House, he was appointed attorney general. His job was to uphold law and order. He waged wars against organized crime and corrupt unions, and was sometimes alleged to be not entirely above the dirty tricks of his opponents. He timidly embraced the civil rights movement.

And then, something strange happened.

Power usually corrupts. It’s something of a cliché that politicians never live up to their promises once they reach office. But for Bobby, it was the opposite. The responsibility and ordeals of leadership actually made him a better person. He rose to the challenge. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he showed wisdom few suspected, playing a major role in talking down both Americans and Soviets, averting nuclear apocalypse. John was so grateful for his mediation he exclaimed: “Thank God for Bobby!”

Bobby was his brother’s confidante, the only person the president really trusted inside the government. As their friend, the historian Arthur Schlesinger put it: “Bobby was John’s conscience.” Together, the two abandoned their unflinching support for the Cold War. They did something politicians almost always never do: they learned from their mistakes. They dreamt of a world without nuclear weapons and war. Behind the backs of the Generals and the political elite, they began charting a new path – one they thought could make the world peaceful.

But in 1963, John was killed. To Bobby, this was more than mourning a brother. It was losing a hero. But he was not surprised. He later confided he knew “they” would kill one of them. He just thought it would be him.

After this, it’s like Bobby became his childhood self again. Shy, contemplative, hyper-sensitive. He quit his job to spend time with his wife and kids. Unlike his father, he was a loving and sweet patriarch. But nothing could repair his heart. He obsessively wore his brother’s bomber jacket, and spent hours in the Arlington National Cemetery, where John was buried.

In his honor, he appeared at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. His legs shook, his eyes misted over. His fragility was there for everyone to behold. In his speech, he said: “We can’t just look to the past, we must look to the future.” And so, despite the pain, he did just that. He won the senatorship of New York and got to work. This was the first time he was ever elected. Bobby was no longer in anybody’s shadow. Not his feared father’s, not even his beloved brother’s.

Senator Bobby Kennedy could be whoever he wanted. So who did he choose to become?

***

Bobby was not the liberal icon some like to say he is. That’s because he was a free-thinker – not an ideologue – and did not follow party lines. A Democrat, he nonetheless scorned president Lyndon Johnson’s welfare policies. To him, they meant “millions of our people are slaves to dependency and poverty.” But he did not advocate austerity either. He felt welfare programs might feed a man a fish; they still did not teach him how to fish, so he could feed himself.

His answer to poverty, then, was not money, but meaningful work. The kind of work, as he put it, that could make someone “say to his community, to his family … and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country’.” He wanted the public and private sectors to work together and invest in low-income communities.

Bobby’s philosophy – what his action and life come down to – is, in his words, “the belief that the individual man… is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exists for his benefit.” That’s why he went to South Africa at the height of apartheid and spoke against segregation and discrimination. That’s why he opposed the war in Vietnam, and called poverty not just abject, but also immoral. That’s why he pleaded to protect the environment and curb pollution. That’s why he feared the growth of government, conscious that bureaucracy kills human potential. That’s why, in a prescient speech, he denounced consumerism.

His words seem even more relevant today than in 1968, when he uttered them: “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values to the mere accumulation of material things.”

Unlike many politicians, whether left or right, Bobby wanted to do more than just solve problems. Eradicating material poverty was a priority, sure, but he was convinced another more insidious poverty existed – the one that stemmed from lack of fulfilment. There lied his ultimate purpose. Bobby wanted to cure mind and body alike. When he ran for president in 1968, it was under the theme of “reconciliation.” He wanted to reconcile rich and poor, young and old, black and white. But, above all, he wanted to reconcile America with its initial mission – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In April 1968, Martin Luther King was killed. That same night, Bobby was scheduled to give a speech in an African-American neighbourhood of Indianapolis. But his team cancelled it, after the local police told them they couldn’t keep Bobby safe if riots erupted. Bobby did not care. He went anyway, got up on a flatbed truck and improvised.  He talked to the crowd for five minutes. It may be the greatest speech ever given by a politician, precisely because it doesn’t feel like it’s given by a politician. There is no artifice, no attempt to dazzle.

Bobby appears less a charismatic statesman than a quiet messiah. His profession of faith: “To make gentle the life of this world.” He prized gentleness perhaps because, so often in his life, he had been ruthless. He talked about “love,” because he knew a life without love was no life at all. That night – as Martin Luther King and his dream died – Indianapolis was the only major city in America without riots. Many consider it to have been down to Bobby’s show of humanity.

Years earlier, when Dr. King had first crossed paths with a cavalier Bobby, he had said: “Somewhere in this man sits good.”

***

Bobby Kennedy is the greatest president America never had. But, ultimately, such what ifs are irrelevant. We don’t need to debate what kind of president Bobby would have made to value him. He has done enough in the real world for us to dismiss the fantasy.

Bobby Kennedy was a flawed individual. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s exactly what makes him inspirational. You don’t need to be a Zen master to realize life is about change. Bobby had the temerity to evolve. He believed in his own redemption. When confronted with obstacles and tragedy, he always became a better version of himself.

His journey was that of the seeker – never feeling like he’d arrived at his destination, perpetually looking for enlightenment. He knew the path to a better world, just like the path to a better life, would be strenuous. But that would mean rewarding too. 50 years after his assassination, the most important lesson we can learn from Bobby Kennedy lies beyond politics. It is to keep going no matter what.

After all, Bobby said: “All of us might wish at times we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.”

Theo Zenou is a writer who covers politics & culture and develops for TV. He tweets @TheoZenou