If Bobby had lived, he would have done it all: ended the war in Vietnam, rescued the underclass from another generation's worth of poverty and despair, united a country that was fundamentally at odds with its own conception of itself. If Bobby had lived, there would have been no Watergate, no IranContra scandal, no Monica, no Iraq. If Bobby had lived, America would have been rescued from itself by itself, by this man, this Kennedy. If Bobby had lived.
These are the kinds of sentiments one has after reading Arthur Schlesinger Jr's. 1976 biography of Robert F.Kennedy, the man he knew so well. (Schlesinger was an adviser to both J.F.K. and R.F.K.) It is almost astonishing to read about how loved, if not revered, Robert Kennedy became in some quarters of the United States; those who think that Bill Clinton or George W.Bush are the focus of a certain hysterical level of hero worship should go on back and check out what Bobby Kennedy lived through in the final years of his life. (This is not to say that Bobby Kennedy was universally beloved; like Clinton, Kennedy had his fair share of detractors, too. But boy, did Bobby Kennedy become something else.)
What allowed Bobby Kennedy access to the hearts and minds of so many Americans? His name, of course; the afterglow from his brother's premature death, most certainly. But it was more than that, deeper than that. Kennedy was the first American leader to show a concerted, passionate engagement with the poor. With those left behind. Not only in America, but all over the world. He had a will and a voice that gave voice to those who had, until then, remained voiceless. He had an aim, Kennedy did, and it was not directed at power for power's sake, but power for the elevation of the underclass.
As somebody living in the early cusp of the twenty-first century, and as a Canadian, no less, it's difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand the intensity of the late sixities in American life, but Schlesinger's book paints a pretty convincing portrait of a nation looking for a leader, almost desperate for a leader. Lyndon Johnson was stubbornly sticking to the war in Vietnam, and it's clear that America was, by then, not buying what he was trying to sell.
Kennedy agonized over whether to run for President against Johnson; his brother, Teddy, told him that now was not the time. When Johnson finally decided not to seek reelection, it was clear that a gap had opened, a gap that Kennedy could, if he defeated his own Democratic rivals for his party's nomination, fill.
He never got the chance, of course, slain by an assassin's bullet immediately after winning the
California primary. (Or was it multiple assasins? I, a certified conspiracy nut, will remain mum on this one.) Kennedy was fatalistic about the possibilities of his own murder; he knew, all too well, what had happened to his older brother, and he knew what could happen to him, and if it did, well, so be it. Life was not about fearing death.
From my perch in Phnom Penh, I've become more and more attuned to the manner in which politics plays a part in people's lives, the way that leaders can shift and sway the tide of history itself. This is a country where, if I even mention the prime minister's name in my class, the air stops, and the tension emerges, and the anticipation mounts: What will be said, and why, and to what end? It starts from the top, is what I'm trying to say, and everyone here, at every level, knows that the top is corrupt and craven and something to be feared, not loved.
Robert Kennedy was loved. I'm not saying a leader necessarily has to be loved, but Kennedy was not loved for something insubstantial or photogenic -- his looks or his family's legacy -- but rather for what he stood for, and what he died for. He was loved because he had a genuine concern for those most of society neglected to acknowledge, let alone advocate for. He was loved because he seemed to embody, to personify, what a leader should be and can be.
As I scan the world's landscape of leaders, from the Putins and the Paul Martins, the Bushes and the Hun Sens, the Chavezes and the Blairs, I see leadership, yes, and madness, certainly, but do I see somebody to love? Do we need somebody to love? Perhaps not. Perhaps looking for love in a leader is akin to looking for control in a parent: necessary, yes, but not the fundamental requriement for the job.
It starts at the top. When we see the best in ourselves represented, if only fleetingly, in the eyes and actions of our leaders, something alters. Something within us implores us to do more and be more. A leader should represent not what the country is, but what the country can be. Politics is a game, and politics is power, this I know, but politics is also the means by which a citizen can understand what they and their brethren are supposed to eventually evolve into. When I read a biography of somebody like Robert F.Kennedy, and the eloquent eulogy given by his brother Edward Kennedy (who has, all too often, given eloquent eulogies for his fallen family members), and I scan the present-day political landscape, and I see who leads us, who guides us, it makes me mourn all the more for what could have been and has now been lost.