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.
Exclusive Q&A with Author Thurston Clarke
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 Johnsons bubble-topped, bulletproof limousine, he told a reporter, "Ill tell you one thing: if Im elected President, you wont find me riding around in any of those God-damned cars. We cant 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 Ive 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 Duttonand 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: Kennedys obsession with the plight of Americas 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, theres usually a chance every two or three days . . . where you get a chance to teach people something; and to tell them something that they dont know because they dont have the chance to get around like I do, to take them some place vicariously that they havent 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 Kennedys 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
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