HRC is not RFK

by Latoya Peterson

I am interrupting my own self-imposed silence on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most recent comments* to address something I have been seeing with disturbing frequency on pro-Hillary blogs.

Hillary Clinton is not Robert F. Kennedy. They were not in the same position. They are not fighting the same kind of fight. So can we please stop this foolishness?

Over on Shakesville, a commenter stated:

mojave_wolf 05/24/2008 05:13 PM 2 points

Well, RFK Jr wasn’t offended by this and is still in Hillary’s camp, and I think if anyone is in a position to know what she’s talking about whether it’s offensive, it’s him.

I was so happy to see Kathy’s post up above — What’s really disturbing about the reaction to Hillary’s analogy (aside from the way MSNBC initially took it out of context to produce exactly this sort of reaction, and that RFK Jr’s immediately coming to her defense is getting practically no play) is that all the people freaking out about the comment are completely ignorant of the fact that *HILLARY* is in the Bobby Kennedy position.

Kennedy, like Hillary, was staying in the race while behind in hopes of building momentum and catching up (some differences–he was behind in part because he started late; she is a lot closer in delegates and actually is the leader in the popular vote)

Oh hell no.

And I saw this same load of crap repeated on various other sites (though it should be noted that most of the Shakes comments I read did not follow this line of argument.)

Now, dear readers, I am not old enough to remember RFKs run for office. My parents are not old enough to remember RFKs run for office.

So I called my boyfriend’s grandmother.

She was born in 1932, has worked in Washington since the 1950s, and keeps up with politics like it’s a sport. She refers to the nightly news anchors on a first name basis. So I knew she would know.

I basically asked her to verify the facts I spotted in this month’s cover feature for Vanity Fair. Titled “The Last Good Campaign” with text excerpted from The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America, by Thurston Clarke.

The article is fascinating as it transports the reader right to 1968 – all the uncertainty, the strangeness, the tense political climate, and the terse social climate. Clarke makes a point to tell the story as true to reality as he could – all moments of uncertainty are documented and R.F. Kennedy’s failures as a candidate are in full view. And, through this guided narrative, the key characteristics of the campaign are presented.

Kennedy was the Underdog from Day One

Unlike HRC, who was considered the presumptive nominee until Barack Obama crashed her party, Robert F. Kennedy was advised against running from the moment he opened his mouth to consider the possibility.

Ted Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, and other former J.F.K. White House aides—men whom Robert Kennedy described to New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis as “most everyone whom I respect”—were strongly opposed to his running. They argued that he could not win, that party and union leaders were certain to back Johnson, and that a Kennedy candidacy risked being viewed as another chapter in the long-running Kennedy-Johnson feud, dating back to the 1960 campaign, rather than as an honest difference over policy. They also pointed out that if Republicans won the White House in 1968 the Democratic leadership would blame Kennedy and oppose giving him the nomination in 1972. Some were afraid that, as Jackie Kennedy had said to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “the same thing that happened to Jack” would happen to Bobby, although most knew Bobby well enough not to voice these fears to him. In 1996, Ted Kennedy admitted to biographer Adam Clymer that he had feared Bobby might be assassinated. “We weren’t that far away from ‘63 [when J.F.K. was killed],” he said, “and that was still very much of a factor.”


The fact that Bobby’s wife, Ethel, and Ted Kennedy were on opposite sides of the debate contributed to Bobby’s indecision. Ted was a more cautious and canny politician than Bobby, and more inclined to adhere to Senate and party rules and customs. He was so certain that entering the race in 1968 would be a mistake that he enlisted others in his campaign, even approaching Senator George McGovern in the Senate gymnasium and raising his concerns.

RFK Directly Challenged an Incumbent Democratic President…

Bobby announced his candidacy on March 16 in the caucus room of the Old Senate Office Building, the room that his brother had used for the same purpose. He stood in the same spot and began with the same sentence: “I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States.” After saying that he was running to “close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old,” he concluded with a passage that made him sound like his brother, perhaps because it had been contributed in part by Ted Sorensen, who had been his brother’s speechwriter: “I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.”

…Based on Moral Concerns about the Future of the Country

But two events occurring at the end of November made his candidacy virtually inevitable. The first was his November 26 appearance on Face the Nation, during which he characterized the argument that Americans were fighting in Vietnam to prevent Communism from threatening the mainland as “immoral,” saying, “Do we have the right here in the United States to say that we’re going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have, refugees, kill women and children, as we have? … I very seriously question whether we have that right.” Then, continuing to frame the issue in moral terms, he said, “When we use napalm, when a village is destroyed and civilians are killed … this is a moral obligation and a moral responsibility for us here in the United States.” A panelist asked why, if he felt this way, he believed that Johnson should run for a second term. Because there was no honest answer to this question, Kennedy hedged. During a meeting with Kennedy the following January, the influential columnist Walter Lippmann pointed to the same conundrum, telling him, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had arranged the meeting, “Well, if you believe that Johnson’s reelection would be a catastrophe for the country—and I entirely agree with you on this … the question you must live with is whether you did everything you could to avert this catastrophe.”

RFK Took Responsibility for an Unpopular Decision About the Vietnam War

Kennedy opened his attack on President Johnson’s Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. “Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public,” he said. “I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”

He acknowledged that the effort may have been “doomed from the start” and admitted that the South Vietnamese governments, which his brother’s administration had supported, had been “riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed,” adding, “If that is the case, as it may well be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles [from Antigone]: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil.’ The only sin, he said, is pride.”

Some other items of note:

Kennedy took stands that were not politically advantageous

Edwin Guthman, who had served as his press officer in the Justice Department, learned that he had decided to run when Kennedy called to ask whether Guthman thought he should accept an invitation to fly to Delano, California, on March 10 and join Cesar Chavez, the head of the farmworkers’ union, in ending Chavez’s 25-day fast affirming his commitment to nonviolence. After discussing whether Kennedy should go, Guthman asked if he was planning to run. “I think I have to,” he replied. “If I don’t, I’ll have to support Gene McCarthy, and I can’t do it in good conscience. A lot of people are still against it. The Democratic Senators who are up for election will be upset, but Tet has changed everything, and if I don’t go now and make an effort in the primaries, I think I’ll be nothing.”

Guthman pointed out that supporting Chavez might cost him the support of some voters in the California primary. “I know,” Kennedy replied, “but I like Cesar.”

Kennedy Operated Under the Threat of Violence

One might have thought that Ethel Kennedy—who knew that during her husband’s term as attorney general the telephones at Hickory Hill, the Kennedys’ home in McLean, Virginia, had rung with threats such as “We know where your kids go to school and we know how they get there” and “Do you know what hydrochloric acid can do to your eyes?”—would be the last person to want Bobby to run. But she was almost as complicated as he was: recklessly frank yet guarded, canny and guileless, brash and sensitive, an observant Catholic who threw wild parties and hobnobbed with celebrities. Perhaps she wanted him to run because she imagined it would be great fun, a kind of nonstop Hickory Hill party, or because she was competitive with Jackie and considered it her turn to be First Lady, or because she believed her husband’s fate was in God’s hands. More likely, it was because she understood him better than anyone, believed in him more, was convinced he would be a great president, and knew he would never forgive himself if he sat out the race.


The right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler, who had also been a ferocious critic of F.D.R. and the New Deal, welcomed the possibility that, as he put it, “some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his [Kennedy’s] spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies,” and J. Edgar Hoover’s deputy Clyde Tolson remarked offhandedly, “I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch.”


Before returning to the Kansas City airport, the Kennedy press corps stopped for a quick restaurant meal. Jimmy Breslin asked a table of reporters, “Do you think this guy has the stuff to go all the way?”

“Yes, of course he has the stuff to go all the way,” John J. Lindsay replied. “But he’s not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it. Just as sure as we’re sitting here somebody is going to shoot him. He’s out there now waiting for him And, please God, I don’t think we’ll have a country after it.”

There was a stunned silence. Then, one by one, the other reporters agreed. But none asked the most heartbreaking question: Did Kennedy himself know it?

Kennedy Inspired Loyalty

It was a small though acceptable crowd, given that Kennedy was staying only long enough to board Docking’s private plane. But while he was still on the stairs, the doors of the terminal flew open and more than a thousand people, led by a vanguard of young women screaming “Bobby!,” dashed across the tarmac. After they pinned him against the bottom of the stairway he laughed and, delighted by their enthusiasm, began, “We’re going to change the policy of the United States.” When he finished he told them they had just heard his first campaign speech, adding, “Now, let’s all clap.”

Reporters called it a turnout worthy of a general election, and evidence of a “subterranean longing for change,” but it was less spontaneous than it seemed. Herb Schmertz, who would later become known for the Mobil Oil essays he placed in advertisements on the New York Times op-ed page, had brought in a busload of TWA flight-attendant trainees and announced Kennedy’s imminent arrival over the public-address system. Unlike most Kennedy staffers, Schmertz believed in the Vietnam War, and still does. When asked why he worked for Kennedy, he offers some breezy explanations, such as “Campaigns attract the most beautiful women” and “You know, you don’t necessarily have to agree with your candidate on everything,” before giving the real Honorary Kennedy reason: “Ah, well, the things you do for your friends.”

Somehow, RFK managed to keep black support.

See above photo. Just saying.

RFK was a Rockstar Candidate, Whose Main Draw in the Beginning was College Students

Because Kennedy attracted a record-setting crowd of 14,500, students stood in stairwells, sat cross-legged on the basketball court and under the press tables, and perched on the rafters and scoreboard, dangling their legs in space. Their signs said, bobby is groovy! and kiss me, bobby. Others said, gene for integrity and traitor!

The Kennedys walked onto the dais with Kansas State president James McCain, Governor and Mrs. Docking, and former governor Alf Landon. The students jumped up, cheering, stamping their feet, and scuffing up clouds of dust that dimmed the light and hung like smoke. They cheered because Kennedy was youthful and handsome, John Kennedy’s brother, and he reminded them of happier times. Seventeen-year-old Kevin Rochat, the son of a K.S.U. official, cheered because he thought everything had gone wrong since J.F.K.’s assassination, and only his brother could make it right. Ralph Titus, who managed the university radio station, believes these conservative students cheered because Vietnam had made even them uneasy.


As he started to leave, waves of students rushed the platform, knocking over chairs and raising more dust. They grabbed at him, stroking his hair and ripping his shirtsleeves. Herb Schmertz was left with a lifelong phobia of crowds. University officials opened a path to a rear exit, but Kennedy waved them off and waded into the crowd. Photographer Stanley Tretick, of Look magazine, watched the mêlée and shouted, “This is Kansas, fucking Kansas! He’s going all the fucking way!”


To help promote Kennedy’s second speech of the day, at the University of Kansas, the campaign had planted an editorial in the school’s newspaper criticizing its students for being “conservative and apathetic.” This had the desired effect of swelling the audience at the Allen Fieldhouse to 19,000, one of the largest in university history. Kennedy’s reception was even more raucous than at Kansas State. Witnesses spoke of “roaring students” and “raw emotion let loose.” Reporter Jack Newfield, from The Village Voice, described it as “emotion beyond reason, cheering until saliva ran, clapping until hands hurt,” and New York Post columnist Jimmy Breslin believed it indicated that “the day when a politician can survive with slogans may be gone.”

After completing the seven page article, and talking to the some other family elders, I have no idea why anyone would even attempt to argue that HRC is in the position of RFK. At the very least, one would think her supporters would notice the similarities between the Kennedy campaign and Barack Obama’s. Also, when you notice that HRC chose not to stand up against an incumbent Republican president during a time of great crisis, the analogy makes even less sense.

There is no way Hillary was talking about herself when referencing the RFK campaign. Perhaps she was talking about timing, but even still, bringing up an assassination is bad form. Bringing up an assassination to attempt to justify your campaign continuing is just disgusting.

If, heaven forbid, someone were to pop HRC, I highly doubt her portrait would be hung in the kitchens of grandmothers around the nation, next to MLK, JFK, and RFK. Just saying.

*I have not been directly writing about what Hillary has been saying, just linking to people who discuss it. I am waiting for a large feminist blog to address how fucked up HRC is being as this campaign goes on. They need not reject and denounce HRC as a candidate, they just need to reference that there are some problems. Or even reference that some people may have a case for having problems with her comments. From the looks of things, it appears that I will be silent forever.

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