THE BLOG
06/09/2008 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama, Bobby Kennedy's Historical Heir


The June day that Robert F. Kennedy died, Barack Obama and I were six going on seven. In other words, we were children in the 1960s, not children of the 1960s. There is a vast world of difference.

Now 40 years after that cruel day in California, the nation is profoundly changed by the fact that Obama, an African-American, is the chosen one as the Democratic presumptive presidential nominee. It's the prize that Kennedy, best known as Bobby, pursued with his trademark vigor and ferocity. He died trying and many believe victory was in his grasp. There's no way to know, but something can be said for sure.

Nobody would have been happier to see American history happen this June than Bobby Kennedy.

Fittingly, Obama belongs to the same generation as Kennedy's children. The populous and rebellious Baby Boomers, children of the '60s, were half a step behind Kennedy, like Hillary and Bill Clinton. Obama is truly akin to a spiritual son of the man who saw things that never were and asked, why not?

If only Kennedy had lived to see the day in 2008 when Obama sewed up the nomination, he might have been moved to tears, perhaps inspired to give a speech of the highest order, impromptu, like the one he delivered in Indiana on the April day in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in a Memphis motel. On that night he pleaded with people to embrace nonviolence, much in the same vein as King. Two short months later, Kennedy was slain in a swanky Los Angeles hotel.

To be sure, President John F. Kennedy was many things - with a witty, brilliant, ironic cast of mind - but civil rights was not his strong suit. He made light of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's sympathy for "the Negroes."

After his older brother died, Bobby Kennedy had less than five years left to live. He seemed to undergo a radical character transformation or epiphany when it came to exploring racial and class divides and witnessing them with his own eyes. This compelled him to visit black families iiving in hunger and poverty in the shacks of the Mississippi Delta and white families in the hills of Appalachia. The outrage and distress he registered, clearly real, burned and swirled in the mad rock opera of 1968.

But you know what? As children in the '60s, we didn't know all that. As six-year-olds, we may have wept bitterly when King and Kennedy were cut down without really knowing the reason why. That bitter spring, I remember listening to the radio and hearing "I Have a Dream," terribly sad that this pealing voice was stilled and silenced, would be no more. When Kennedy lingered on his deathbed for a few hours, I saw my father, a doctor, sitting frozen in a Rodin-like pose, grief-stricken.

In a crisis, a time of sorrow or loss, children inhale adult emotions like little walking barometers. But we couldn't make much sense of the 1960s. About all we knew in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, a center of the student anti-war movement, was this: a war was being fought in some TV black and white land called Vietnam and that we were up to no good there. But the good, the best, were dying young. It was that simple.

There was no rhyme and reason to those of us who were children then, some taken along for the ride to civil rights and anti-war marches. It's just as well that the bloodshed, heartbreak and divisions at home are all fading into the distance in the national psyche. Obama has said he is glad not to have the "psychodrama" of that tumult wedged in his head as a young adult. With the Iraq War as George W. Bush's parting gift to us, a clean and clear slate like Obama's is just what we need.

Kennedy, like King, was a dreamer and a social justice visionary. Obama is clearly the historical heir of both men. But Kennedy lived and breathed the rough and raw world of politics and power, which Obama mastered in the tough training grounds of Chicago and Springfield. King operated in the realms of conscience, religion, and collective nonviolent action rising above the law of the land.

Obama makes it look easy, riding the horse of history. Kennedy was thrown off that horse, but he was riding it fast in exactly the right direction. Rarely does it come round in a perfect circle, 40 years later, to us to marvel at the ground we've gained.


Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.