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The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America Hardcover – May 27, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2008: When Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the presidential race during the chaotic year of 1968, anarchy appeared to be gathering on the horizon. America was coming to grips with an unwinnable war in Vietnam and unacceptable social policies at home. The Last Campaign examines Kennedy's bold (and tragically shortened) efforts to awaken his country's social conscience and moral sensibility. In contrast to the cocksure attitude of Thirteen Days (RFK's own 1962 memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis), Thurston Clarke reveals a very human politician who often trembled at the podium and scanned crowds for an assassin's glare. Though motivated to serve by an unwavering desire to help the poor and oppressed, Kennedy also lived with a deep fear that his life would be cut short by violence. "I'm afraid there are guns between me and the White House," he prophetically remarked during the spring of '68. Yet The Last Campaign chooses not to explore what could have been. Instead, Clarke focuses on what is certain: for an 82-day period, Kennedy "convinced millions of Americans that he was a good man, perhaps a great man." --Dave Callanan

Exclusive Q&A with Author Thurston Clarke

Kennedy during a 1967 visit to the Mississippi Delta where he found children starving in windowless shacks.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, conferring at the White House.

Kennedy discussing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. with press secretary Frank Mankiewicz on April 4, 1968.
Amazon.com: He was a Presidential candidate for less than 100 days - why does the name Bobby Kennedy continue to resonate today?

Clarke: The fact that he was the brother of a beloved and martyred president, and that he was also assassinated are of course important factors. But I think Bobby Kennedy continues to be relevant because he tackled issues such as race, poverty, and an ill-advised and unpopular war that remain relevant. And not only did he address these issues but he addressed them with an honesty and passion that no other president or politician has equaled since 1968.

Amazon.com: Despite his own fears, Kennedy made himself dangerously accessible to crowds. Was this an act of defiance or conviction?

Clarke: It was both defiance and conviction.

Speaking of President Johnson’s bubble-topped, bulletproof limousine, he told a reporter, "I’ll tell you one thing: if I’m elected President, you won’t find me riding around in any of those God-damned cars. We can’t have that kind of country, where the President is afraid to go among the people." When his aides (who were worried about his safety throughout the campaign) urged him to spend more time campaigning from television studios and less time plunging into crowds, he told them, "There are so many people who hate me that I’ve got to let the people who love me see me." Kennedy also knew that crowds revived him–"like a couple of drinks," according to aide Fred Dutton–and that letting people see him in person was the best way to prove that his reputation for being "ruthless" was unmerited.

Amazon.com: Hypothetical questions achingly surround Bobby Kennedy and his legacy. Did any single "What if?" occupy your thoughts as you researched this book? Kennedy campaigning in Los Angeles during 1968

Clarke: Several "What ifs" haunted me.

Kennedy had wanted to avoid going to the Ambassador Hotel on the evening of June 4, 1968 and instead watch the returns at the home of John Frankenheimer. The networks, however, protested that they needed him at the hotel for interviews and wanted to cover the victory celebration live if he won. Kennedy caved in and went to the hotel.

Kennedy always went through the crowd in a ballroom or auditorium after speaking, and became angry with aides who tried to hustle him out a back door. But on the night of his assassination, he broke his own rule and went through the hotel pantry where Sirhan Sirhan was waiting.

And what if he had won the nomination and become president? I doubt that there would have been riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago that year -- riots that helped elect Richard Nixon to the presidency and that have proven to be an albatross around the neck of Democrats for forty years. A President Robert Kennedy would have withdrawn America from Vietnam soon and there would be fewer names on the Vietnam wall. There would have been no bombing of Cambodia, Kent State, or Watergate, and so on, and so on.

Amazon.com: Kennedy's campaign strategy was fraught with risk, as one observer remarked that "he kept hammering away at the plight of the poor when there was more chance for political loss than gain." Had Bobby simply had enough with politics as usual?

Clarke: Kennedy’s obsession with the plight of America’s poor was more the result of his own personal experiences than any rejection of politics as usual. He had held a starving child in his arms in Mississippi. He had visited the appalling schools on Indian reservations where students learned nothing about their own culture and history. He had tramped through tenements in Brooklyn and come upon a girl whose face had been disfigured by rat bites. He believed that he had a responsibility to educate the American people about these conditions.

During a flight on his chartered campaign plane he told Sylvia Wright of Life magazine, ". . . for every two or three days that you waste time making speeches at rallies full of noise and balloons, there’s usually a chance every two or three days . . . where you get a chance to teach people something; and to tell them something that they don’t know because they don’t have the chance to get around like I do, to take them some place vicariously that they haven’t been, to show them a ghetto, or an Indian reservation." And it was moments like these, Kennedy told Wright, that made a political campaign, despite all its banalities and indignities, "worth it."

Amazon.com: In your opinion, will we ever see another Bobby Kennedy? Have we become too jaded to embrace a candidate like RFK or has campaigning simply become political theater?

Clarke: One of the aides who scheduled many of Kennedy’s appearances that spring, told me, "What he did was not really that mystical. All it requires is someone who knows himself, and has some courage."

From Publishers Weekly

In this hagiographic narrative of Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Democratic presidential primary campaign, RFK seems less a politician than a moral teacher. Hammering away at the immorality of poverty and racism, he confronted crowds with their own ethical culpability and, regarding the Vietnam War, reminding campus audiences of the unfairness of student draft deferments. Rapturous throngs of voters ate it up and propelled RFK to a string of victories. Clarke (Ask Not) positions Kennedy as a prototypical New Democrat who appealed to minorities and working-class whites alike by mixing liberalism with themes of law and order, free enterprise, jobs and local control. But in Clarke's telling, Kennedy's essence is spiritual rather than political; he is a Christ figure— comforting sick children, utterly sincere in his beliefs and incapable of political pandering, haunted by forebodings of his assassination, his charisma tactile and mystical... he had to let people see, touch, and commune with him. Clarke emphasizes the Kennedy campaign's contemporary resonance, but his book is more revealing as an iconic portrait of the passionate, turbulent zeitgeist of the 1960s. 8 pages of b&w photos. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805077928
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805077926
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #184,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
With so many RFK books already out there, I was hoping that this one would be worth the wait....and it was. In great detail, we are taken back in time to a two and a half month period of 1968 that was full of incredible drama and intensity.

The chapter covering the Indianapolis speech was especially moving. I think anyone reading it would just get goose-bumps as it goes into more backround detail than was previously told. My God....that speech actually changed history in that city.

That story....and the whole book tries to tell us what IT was that Robert Kennedy had or did that made over 2 MILLION people cry or stand at attention or just look shattered as his funeral train traveled from New York to Washington. Heart-wrenching and at the same time so uplifting....that there was once a real politician who was a human being who grew and changed and could set this kind of example for the country. Highly recommended for anyone who loves history and / or incredible life-changers.
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Format: Hardcover
Less than a month into Bobby Kennedy's campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down. Bobby was in Indianapolis at the time, and said a few words. He didn't make a political speech. He didn't read from a script. He just said a few heartfelt words that expressed his horror at the assassination and his vision for a better nation, a nation dedicated to taming the savageness of man and making gentle the life of the world (p. 96).

In this moving, eloquently written, and well researched narrative of the 82 days of Bobby Kennedy's last campaign, Thurston Clarke provides a much-needed reminder of what presidential politics could look like but hasn't for four decades. Kennedy was a genuine progressive, a man who intensely believed that the purpose of government was to protect the least advantaged in society, to set a high moral standard, and to speak the truth courageously. As Barack Obama is quoted near the book's end, it's hard to place Kennedy in the categories that "constrain [today's presidential candidates] politically...[he wasn't] a centrist in the sense of finding a middle road" (p. 279).

Kennedy ran for president saying that he wanted to end the Vietnam war and poverty. In the process, he dared to speak unpleasant truths to the American people, something rarely done by political candidates. Kennedy's famous speech at Creighton University, in which he challenged the all-white student body about their indifference to the Vietnam war, is a typical example. "Look around you," he said. "How many black faces do you see here? How many American Indians? The fact is, if you look at any regiment or division of paratroopers in Vietnam, 45% of them are black. How can you accept this!?" (p. 190).
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I worked on RFK's '68 campaign and have always been interested in accounts of it. Two journalists who covered the campaign, Jack Newfield and Jules Witcover, wrote excellent memoirs about it at the time. Forty years later, one has to ask what remains to be told.

A great deal, it turns out. Mr. Clarke's account is extraordinary in its depth and balance. For me, he has recreated the time and the man better than anyone else ever has. Reading this book, for me, was like reliving the campaign, with its exultation and ultimate desolation. An extraordinary achievement.
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What was there about this intense, brave, confused, very funny, and very tender-hearted campaign - one that lasted a mere 82 days - that haunts us more than ever after 40 years? Why is it impossible to see even a glimpse of Robert Kennedy on TV without feeling, in Norman Mailer's words: "sorrowful as rue in the throat"?

Thurston Clarke's "The Last Campaign" moves us toward that answer, in a way that is more like a piece of music than a literary creation. He makes us understand that the campaign -- the wound that will never heal - was not constructed as an ideological pursuit, and as Clarke takes us forward we understand that it doesn't seem to make much strategic sense either. Yet it is impossible to imagine a campaign that has ever embodied something as intensely specific as this one: what it means to be human. For Robert Kennedy that meant obsessive concern with all that is hurt, hungry, ignored, degraded, invisible; tenderness toward the broken; self-deprecation bordering on shame for all he was blessed with; political, moral and physical bravery that would make Hemingway flinch; self-criticism and self-learning.

Robert Kennedy burned with everything that has been burned out of our land and out of our political culture. His last campaign recalls us to those moments in all our lives, so rare, that made us fully alive, better than we thought we could be, more romantic, more brave, more moral. He lived that way every day, at least toward the end.

The heartbreak of the book is, or course, the knowledge we have of what followed the extinguishing of the flame. Nixon. Watergate. Carter. Reagan. Let me mention that one again: Reagan. Bush I. Clinton I. Bush II. And almost Clinton II.

Which leads to our current hope.
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