Given these challenges, it’s understandable that he began to move in unconventional directions, ignoring the normal rules of politics to devise new sorts of events, a sort of “jazz politics” with improvised remarks, self-mocking jokes, long sessions with crowds, and extensive Q&A sessions everywhere he went. Ever the contrarian, he would articulate angry black concerns to angry white audiences, and vice versa. Amazingly, he appealed to both, drawing in George Wallace supporters as well as Black Panthers. He would go hundreds of miles away from where the votes were to court Native Americans on reservations; children and elderly in ghettos; and remote rural Americans who’ve barely seen a presidential candidate since. He flouted an essential rule in American politics (never quote a French philosopher under any circumstances), citing Camus and Sartre with reckless abandon, and then immersing himself again in the crowd. Has there ever been a greater existentialist?
Mr. Clarke captures this transformation with skill, showing R.F.K. emerging, page by page, into a brilliant and utterly iconoclastic politician over those short months on the trail. Though his anguish over Dallas never left him—and may have explained his desire to taunt danger—Mr. Clarke argues, persuasively, that R.F.K. was a completely different kind of Kennedy, willing to say things and go places that his more carefully scripted brother never would have.
Conservative Indiana turned out to be the crucible for these growing talents. Kennedy campaigned well and won 10 of its 11 districts. From that character test, he grew stronger, and despite a setback in Oregon, he seemed poised to win the nomination with a victory in the California primary. That he was killed at this supreme moment of vindication, for so little reason, still comes as a plot twist so outrageously unacceptable that Shakespeare wouldn’t have dared inflict it on his public.
Hauntingly, he had predicted, just before his victory, that “Los Angeles is my Resurrection City.”
The religious wording almost fits—for as he wandered deeply into the invisible parts of America that lay below the poverty line, he began to seem like someone out of a medieval pilgrim’s tale, part Christian mendicant, part Greek philosopher. Just as J.F.K. had loved Camelot, so R.F.K. loved Man of La Mancha, and throughout this book there’s a sense of the quixotic journey, and the beautiful world that might have come into existence if the pilgrimage had reached a better terminus. One witness cites the “phantom presidency” that all of R.F.K.’s staff identified with, like the memory of an amputated limb, long after his assassination.
R.F.K. WOULD SURELY have resisted the tendency to idealize him. As Aeschylus wrote, “know not to revere human things too much.” It remains unclear—despite several tantalizing crumbs that Mr. Clarke leaves in the reader’s path—that he would have won the nomination at Chicago without the support of the ultra-superdelegate, Mayor Richard Daley. Even if he’d won, it’s naïve to assume that any presidency would have been successful at the end of the 1960s, though it’s hard to imagine one that would have turned out worse than Richard Nixon’s.
The unfinished feeling behind this story of a work eternally in progress is what leaves so many readers and voters wanting to know more about Robert Kennedy. It was a feeling that profoundly animated the Clinton White House, especially near the end, as new initiatives were designed to support the same people Kennedy had reached out to. It still animates the supporters of both Democratic candidates (a rare point of convergence), for R.F.K. can be plausibly argued to be in the camp of either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, depending on whether one is talking about his appeal to black voters, rural voters, Appalachians—or the simple fact that he was a New York Senator running against two other Senators. Her remark was unfortunate, but a candidate with a famous last name, accused of ruthlessness, running against most of the party and the media establishment, with the support of blue collar voters and other outliers—that’s vintage R.F.K.
Of course, 2008 is not 1968 (thank God). But still, that revolutionary moment lives on in powerful ways, often when we least expect it. The same day that the news hit about Ted Kennedy, a small story ran in the Bloomberg News that the town of Greenwich, Conn., had been presented with an application to build a personal residence with a 12-car garage and 26 toilets. Sometimes it’s not so difficult to understand why Americans remain fascinated with Robert Kennedy.
Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, was a speechwriter for President Clinton from 1997 to 2001. His new book, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (Hill and Wang), will be published in July. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.