Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Awhile back, I read a fascinating account of how, on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination, riots broke out in virtually every US city. Every city except for Indianapolis. That night, in front of a crowd that was largely black - and extremely pissed off - Robert Kennedy gave an impromptu speech that calmed the crowd and helped lock him in the country's imagination forever.

As the train carrying Kennedy's remains traveled across the country, two million people lined the tracks to say goodbye. The last time something like that happened, the train was carrying Lincoln's body.

Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America attempts to explain who Kennedy was in the light of his brief presidential campaign - and how it had such a powerful influence over the United States.

One of the sadder aspects of the book is the specter of death looming over the campaign. Everyone - Kennedy included - expected a hail of bullets at any moment:

"Yes, of course he has the stuff to go all the way," John 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 is somebody 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."

Despite the premonitions and the pall hanging over the campaign, it pressed on, through Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon and California. At campaign stops, Kennedy defied all logic - and advice - and repeatedly told off his audiences. '"To the club members-big, heavy men, most of them well-fleshed and still occupied in shoveling in their lunch - the Senator from New York spoke of children starving, of 'American children, starving in America.' It was reverse demagoguery - he was telling them precisely the opposite of what they wanted to hear,"' wrote Tom Congdon, Jr. of the Saturday Evening Post.

Despite this - crowds were drawn to Kennedy, and Clarke does a fine job evoking the carnival atmosphere at many campaign stops, along with the crowds surging ahead, desperate to see or touch him before he left.

Clarke doesn't waste any time with speculation - something a lot of people might have done. He has no idea what a second Kennedy administration would have been like. Instead, he focuses on what it was that drew people to him - his humanity and sincerity. In an era where politicians talk down to crowds and pander to their worst instincts, Robert Kennedy spoke to their intelligence and better impulses, and he paid the ultimate price for it.

I read a lot of nonfiction - histories and the like, but I can say that so far this year, it's the best history book I've read.

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