Hillary's piece of the RFK legacy

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

BOSTON - Some 15 long, acrimonious months into the historic 2008 presidential race, and you'd think most Democrats would only come together to celebrate the end of a campaign.

But on Sunday, a group came together at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum for a conference commemorating the passing of 40 years since Robert Kennedy announced his campaign for the presidency on March 16, 1968.

Just as the Kennedy legacy has been looming large over the Clinton-Obama race in recent weeks, it hung in the air for about a minute before RFK's eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, pulled it down and set it in the middle of the room.

"Disputes are rampant," the former Maryland Lt. Governor and Clinton supporter said about those laying claim to the '68 campaign's mantle. "And I'm not just talking about my family."

Most who addressed the, 'Who's more RFK?' question yesterday used humor to deflate the tension. This milestone event was too special for bickering.

Still, as a student of that time period, it is something I have often come back to. We (myself included) accept the conventional wisdom of the Obama-Kennedy comparison based on charisma, youth and eloquence. And yet, I - and others - see many traces of RFK in Hillary Clinton, too.

It's important to admit that the magnetic charisma part is really in the eye of the beholder, and we should be more subjective in who's drawing the bigger, more adulating crowds at this stage in the campaign. As an Obama supporter, I am much more excited by him than Clinton; just as there are many who feel the thrill with her and get nothing from him. They are distinctive constituencies and the difference at the ballot has not been that great.

From there, the areas where either Clinton or Obama can lay claim to RFK's legacy split.

For example, even though all three entered the Senate with the pressure of high expectations, the discrepancy comes in the way the two interpreted it. Clinton settled in for the long haul, racking up legislative accomplishments, while Obama was more like RFK: frustrated by body's glacial pace and wary of being saddled with a long voting record.

A sense of urgency encouraged Obama and Kennedy to seek the presidency - prematurely by most standards, giving them the aura of insurgencies. Questions of age and experience dogged both of them, which is perhaps the only negative trait Obama shares with RFK.

Like Clinton, Kennedy's positions on certain issues were seen as evolving. And as Thomas Edsall pointed out last summer, Obama has a proclivity to challenge his audience just as RFK did and Clinton won't.

In ways that Clinton and Kennedy are most similar, UFCW founder and Clinton supporter Dolores Huerta offered up a spot-on comparison of their press coverage. RFK had been depicted as cold, calculating and ruthlessly ambitious. The press was adversarial and oftentimes brutal (though his scrutiny decreased during the '68 campaign while it only seemed to heighten for Clinton). They analyzed even the smallest of Kennedy's actions in the frame of a political assault on Johnson. It goes without saying that Hillary knows what that's like.

Both Kennedy and Clinton were known for their public abrasiveness, yet warm and personable up close. Thumb through his biographies and you'll find scores of people who hated RFK's guts the first time they met, and later grew to love him. Hillary is said to have the same effect. And just as Kennedy turned heads in smaller settings, like Indian reservations or on the Mississippi Delta, some of Clinton's best campaign moments have come when she was at her least guarded with a handful of people.

But most notably, Kennedy and Clinton have received the same prizes and punishments that nepotism bestows on those who follow family members into politics.

Clearly, both benefited from their relatives' success. They were able to share in their triumphs, whether or not they deserved to. RFK's Senate aides marveled at how often he was credited for John Kennedy's administration, the same way Clinton benefits from decisions she was not involved in making.

Then there were the downsides. With the credit of successes also comes the burden of failures. The shadows are long, too. People referring to 'your brother' when they would have otherwise said 'President Kennedy' got under RFK's skin, just as the constant referencing of "the Clintons" instead of Hillary insinuates she can never be free of Bill.

In a related, morbid way, both experienced great personal tragedies that paid political dividends. Before Dallas, RFK was the straight-up hated bad cop enforcer of the Kennedy machine. His loss softened his image in the public eye (instead of hating, they only 'strongly disliked' him afterwards). Replace assassination with marital infidelity, and the goodwill by way of sympathy for Hillary is cast in the exact same light.

The similarities between the three of them are numerous, but only when I began listing them on the same piece of paper did I come to the sad realization that Hillary dominates RFK's least admirable attributes, while Obama resembles most of the good.

It's not the conclusion I wanted to come to. I believe the struggles RFK faced helped make him a great, complex and passionate leader - though Barack Obama has undoubtedly been shaped by adversity in other ways.

It also makes me pity Hillary Clinton. Even though she's the establishment candidate, these features cast her as the kind of underdog I'm partial towards. And when I'm able to separate the person from the nasty campaign tactics - and it's not often - the undeniable history of her candidacy makes part of me wish to see her succeed. One day, people will gather at a presidential library (Bill's or her own) to celebrate the anniversary of Hillary's important, groundbreaking effort - though not for the same reason Robert Kennedy's is celebrated.

No, his legacy is different, and the end of this contest will not be some judgment on which part of it is more important. For all its complexities, it goes on - and the Democratic Party can do the same.

Perhaps the most touching moment of Sunday's event was when Sen. Ted Kennedy was overcome by emotion at the conclusion of his brief remarks. Tightening the muscles in his face, he stepped away from the podium, to the side of the stage where his niece Kathleen rushed from the audience.

And there, the family's top surrogates to each of the presidential candidates embraced.

I can say it with confidence: at that moment, there was not a single person in the room thinking about a divided party, or legacy.