Echoes of Kennedy in Hillary’s Run

The small glass box with the engraved signature of Robert F. Kennedy has my name on it, along with the words “United States Senate Campaign, New York 1964” and a gold inset map of New York. It sits in a corner of my law office in Washington, a memento given to me for my work as a speechwriter in that 1964 campaign, filled with reminders of past exciting times and issues which must be relevant to another potential candidate for that same Senate seat 35 years later.

The prevailing wisdom is that Mrs. Clinton is leaning toward a Senate run in New York, though she must be wary of the potential political pitfalls. Her quandary is eerily reminiscent of the one Robert F. Kennedy faced in 1964. The pros and cons of her choice now are so similar to his then, it is likely that her conclusion may be suggested by Kennedy’s decision. She should ponder the relevance of R.F.K.’s experience; it was one of exhilarating opportunities but also of punishing pressures and inhuman demands.

Future historians will note that, then as now, pervasive media speculation abounded. Both were national political stars whose careers had been advanced by their special relations with a related President-hers with her husband, his with his brother. Mrs. Clinton became a national figure as an outspoken First Lady; Robert F. Kennedy was an extraordinarily active attorney general-and both were key figures in their relation’s Presidential campaigns.

Both considered a Senate race in New York, a state they had not been associated with, but one providing a unique national platform for their unusually visible and influential careers. Both faced charges they were carpetbaggers, using New York’s Senate seat as a selfish stepping stone. At least Robert F. Kennedy had lived in Bronxville as a child-a surprise circumstance we exploited in our campaign public relations; Mrs. Clinton doesn’t have even that hint of a connection. Both faced powerful opponents: Kenneth Keating was a popular incumbent and Mayor Giuliani is a daunting campaigner who also has a reputation beyond New York City and national aspirations of his own.

Each candidate-Mrs. Clinton and Kennedy-generated extraordinary adulation, but also engendered shocking vituperation, among the public in and out of New York. Something about both of them provokes a fearful, passionate reaction, puzzlingly outsize emotions disproportionate to the issues they espouse or represent. They are adored or despised, there is no middle ground.

I recall strategy sessions leading to Kennedy’s decision to run, which must be very much like those the First Lady must be having with her advisers. What is there to gain by a consuming and critical campaign? Both had attractive and lucrative opportunities aside from the Senate. Both would face ugly charges and a bruising political fight. Both would run on their own records but bear the burdens as well as the glamour of their Presidential mentors. Both were more liberal than their Presidential relations and, while they came to power under more conservative mentors, would find appealing the opportunity to make profound footprints of their own. Both faced critics’ concerns about the undesirability of family dynasties.

Kennedy agonized for months, then decided to run in part as a route out of his prolonged agonies over his brother’s assassination. One can speculate that Mrs. Clinton, too, sees this opportunity as a way to walk out from under the darkness which was cast on her by the clouds of her husband’s troubles throughout his Presidency, especially during the last year.

Eventually, of course, Kennedy decided to run, and won his election. But it was a rough and contentious one. Many New York liberals distrusted him and supported a Democrats for Keating organization. Like Mrs. Clinton, Kennedy was charismatic, but was deemed to be too self-absorbed, too ruthless and without personal schmaltz to suit many New Yorkers. (It’s hard to imagine the First Lady sitting with Spike Lee at a Knicks game.) He was reviled for his earlier excesses-or what were viewed by many in New York as excesses-and for the sins of his family, as surely Mrs. Clinton will be. R.F.K., a darling of most Democrats now, had image problems then; not forgotten was a brief stint in his youth with Senator Joseph McCarthy, his combativeness during the McClellan Committee’s racketeering investigations, the fact that as a brutal campaign manager he left others in the party bruised and hostile. Mrs. Clinton is blamed for much of the Whitewater and related White House messes, for provoking some of the past years of investigations, as well as for the health care reform debacle. She will be reminded of them.

Once in the Senate, R.F.K. became his own man, thrived, evolved into an extraordinarily influential Senator, and before his six-year term ended-and against all odds-was running for President. Perhaps Mrs. Clinton is taking note of this last point of comparison. Who, after all, believes she is running because her life’s dream is to cap her public life as the junior Senator from New York?

Terry Golway is on a short leave. He will return next month. Echoes of Kennedy in Hillary’s Run