It was Jacqueline Kennedy who introduced Robert F. Kennedy to the Greeks, to Aeschylus. This was after 1963, of course, after Dallas. According to Michael Knox Beran’s new biography of Robert Kennedy, The Last Patrician , “Jacqueline Kennedy introduced her brother-in-law to the tragic poetry that helped him make sense of his own sufferings–and put him on the road that led to his discovery of the Hellenic idea of community.”
And it led to a platform in Gary, Ind., on another terrible day, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Robert Kennedy was supposed to speak at a campaign rally; most of his listeners were black. Kennedy knew King was dead before his motorcade set out for Gary. John Lewis, a young civil rights worker then, a Congressman now, was among those who told Kennedy he should cancel his speech. There was no telling what could happen.Kennedy ignored the warnings. He went to Gary, stood in front of this mostly black crowd and announced that Martin Luther King had been murdered. He had no notes; he spoke, in Mr. Lewis’ words, “from the depths of his soul.” To those blacks who were now burning with anger toward white people, he said he understood. “I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” he said. “I had a member of my family killed, too, but he was killed by a white man.” People were weeping, clutching each other, praying, cursing. And from memory, he quoted from Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” He invited his listeners in their grief to live up to the Greek ideal: “To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Less than a month later, Kennedy was dead, too.
On June 7, New York Post columnist Jack Newfield and the Discovery Channel will present an extraordinary three-hour video memoir of his friend Robert Kennedy. Timed to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder, the film recalls a time when politicians, however flawed, actually mattered, a time when those who chronicled public affairs (and those who followed them) were not ashamed to be serious, were not discomforted by adulthood.
Mr. Newfield is, famously, devoted to Kennedy’s memory, but he didn’t shy away from his friend’s flaws, in particular Kennedy’s inaction on civil rights early in his career. In fact, Mr. Newfield was walking a civil rights picket line outside Kennedy’s office when the two men met in the early 1960’s. It was an unlikely beginning to what became a warm and memorable friendship.
The film depicts Robert Kennedy’s journey from hatchet man to crusader in a fashion that won’t satisfy skeptics and Kennedy-haters (what, at this point, would?) but is moving and revealing all the same. Mr. Newfield concedes that the transformation, seen in the context of Bill Clinton and the 1990’s, could easily be viewed as transparent–indeed, even in those less cynical times, it was condemned as such. “Was he capable of calculation? Of course,” Mr. Newfield said. “As an example, I think he hesitated too long to run for President in 1968, and he admitted he was slow to denounce the Vietnam War. He was a politician, not an intellectual or a religious leader. But he set the standard for being a political leader.”
It is the standard by which Mr. Newfield measures President Clinton, a man who has been known to claim a piece of the Kennedy legacy. Anyone familiar with Mr. Newfield’s thoughts on Mr. Clinton will not be surprised to learn that the veteran columnist sees little of Robert Kennedy in Bill Clinton.
“Robert Kennedy was immersed in the writings of Emerson, Shakespeare and Aeschylus. There’s where he looked for wisdom. Contrast that to Fleetwood Mac and Dick Morris,” he said with not a little bitterness. “Robert Kennedy was guided by Camus; Clinton was guided by Dick Morris’ focus groups.” Mr. Clinton made the mistake of trying to ingratiate himself with Mr. Newfield several years ago, telling him that he had read Mr. Newfield’s book on Kennedy and that it had changed his life. Mr. Newfield clearly resents Mr. Clinton’s attempts to cast himself as Kennedy’s heir–his revenge is this film, which he described as “an antidote to Primary Colors ,” of the shallow, poll-driven politics of the Clinton era.
Yes, public life was different in 1968, although for reasons few would wish to see again. War, racial strife and assassinations gave politics a drama, an importance, it simply doesn’t have today. But Mr. Newfield believes that the issues of 30 years ago haven’t changed, even though the chroniclers of public life seem convinced that the most important affair of state is named Monica Lewinsky.
“Class and race–those are always the two great issues, and that hasn’t changed,” Mr. Newfield said.
Watch the film and think about what might have been.