In Bobby Kennedy, we saw the best of ourselves

By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 20/01/07):

Across my generation, Robert Kennedy still casts a shadow like no other political leader. Through the fragile grace of his life and the hesitant magnificence of his words, he embodied what we hoped the world might become. When he died, he became the great might-have-been. And so, in our smaller, still living way, did our generation.

I have Bobby Kennedy's picture on my wall, and a book of his speeches is always within arm's length as I write. Emilio Estevez, whose film about the senator's assassination opens next week, is more passionate still. He says in a New Statesman interview that Kennedy's death marked the end of decency. America, he believes, has spent the past four decades trying to put the pieces back together again. One knows what he means, but that's not quite right. The years through which Bobby Kennedy lived were hardly one of the human race's finest eras. The America in which he died was no pre-lapsarian Eden.

What is true, though, is that in Kennedy many of us all too briefly saw the best of ourselves. Norman Mailer captured it when he wrote from the campaign trail in 1968 that it was incredible and marvellous just to think of Kennedy as president. That was exactly how it felt here too. Crafty Harold Wilson was the best we could manage. But Kennedy could illumine not just America but the whole world.We romanticised him, of course. And we still do. His 43-year journey had taken him through dark places and sordid alliances, which cannot be left out of the story. But somehow the awareness of them is part of what made Kennedy's late-flowering campaigns against poverty, racial injustice and the Vietnam war so believable. Most of the things that Bobby said in those final months told you the same thing as Garrison Keillor says about hearing his brother Jack speak in Minneapolis in 1960 - that here was a man with more keys than usual on his piano, black ones as well as white ones.

The younger Kennedy's presidential bid in 1968 was a wild, people-driven ride, and it is not surprising that reporters who cut their teeth on it now look back on that summer with awe. The chaos in the Ambassador Hotel where the senator was shot was all too typical. When Kennedy made the bravest speech of that campaign, in black inner-city Indianapolis on the evening when Martin Luther King was killed, there wasn't a cop in sight. Yet at the still centre of the storm was this slight, taut, private man with the ability to use the English language more resonantly in pursuit of noble ideals than any public figure in the past 40 years.

In his book Politics Lost, Joe Klein calls the Indianapolis speech a sublime example of politics in its highest mode, seeking to heal, educate and lead. But he too reckons this was the end of an era. It was a world away from the ticketed, vetted, focus-group-prepared campaign events of the present day. Kennedy hadn't been prepped on who would be there, or on what market-tested phrases to use or avoid. He simply spoke from the heart, without proper notes, quoted Aeschylus, and reached out to his audience with a message of humanity and goodness.

His death left a generation bereft of its maturity, said the poet Robert Lowell. I miss you, he added poignantly. And so do we all, still. But it was the poor, the black and the oppressed who missed him most. An extraordinary river of working-class people came down from the suburbs and rented rooms in New York to queue for six hours and more to file past his coffin. This endless line of everyman had really loved him, the watching Mailer wrote, loved Bobby Kennedy as no political figure in years had been loved.

It is hard to imagine it today. Look at the newsreel of ordinary people standing and saluting by the railway tracks to watch the coffin as it was taken to Washington for burial. You are watching America's Diana moment. Imagine who in American life today could summon such a huge turnout. Certainly not the current president, and probably not his predecessor, though that's rather more likely. Not Hillary Clinton either.

Barack Obama may one day evoke that kind of love. When Obama closed his recent book, a little too knowingly perhaps, with a tribute to the land created by "the slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand", he could have been describing the "poor Negro men and women, Puerto Ricans, Irish washerwomen, old Jewish ladies, families, men with hands thick and lined and horny as oyster-shells" whom Mailer watched as they filed past Robert Kennedy's coffin.

On the surface, Obama's embryonic campaign has some qualities that Kennedy's had. He too has hesitated publicly before subjecting himself to the fray. He too attracts vast audiences, full of hope, because he promises the future not the past. He has an ease with the language that sets him apart. And, merely by joining the race, he is rewriting the odds.

The race echoes 1968 too. Then, as now, a failed war dominated an anguished national campaign. Then, as now, the war compelled candidates, not least Kennedy, to get off the fence and adapt to anti-war concerns. Back then, though, it was the Republicans who had the last laugh. The hopes of the Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns ended with the election of Richard Nixon.

But Iraq is not Vietnam and 2008 is not 1968. And Barack Obama is not Robert Kennedy either. Nevertheless now, as 40 years ago, the Democrats must navigate the politics of war with both audacity and care. Some New Democrats whose obsession with the centre made Bill Clinton electable, still talk as though the war is almost an irrelevance. Denial like that is catastrophic. But reducing everything to the war could be disastrous too. Remember George McGovern.

That wider understanding was part of what made Kennedy a stronger candidate than McCarthy in 1968. Yet if in 2008 the Democrats find a leader who, faced with the most demanding speech of his life, can summon up the spirit of Ancient Greece "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world", let us pray that this time he or she will live to attempt the task, not leave this generation to grow old wondering about what might have been.