01/29/2007 10:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Obama, Reading Up on RFK

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND -- Buried within
two foreign papers' Iowa coverage of
Hillary Clinton is an interesting note about the reading selection of
Senator Barack Obama.

From the Mail & Guardian:

As she flew into Iowa, the man who might
yet top her was slumped asleep in economy class on a flight from
Washington to Chicago, travelling home after a week in the Senate. By
Obama's side was a biography of a Democrat with the same ability to rouse
crowds with passionate speeches, Robert Kennedy.

The Times of London also picked up this detail, noting the book sat "unopened" the entire flight (because people want to know if he can sleep and read at the same time). However, they did not specify which biography of the youthful first-term Senator from New York that the youthful first-term Senator from Illinois is sporting.

If popularity and the National Book Award are any indicators, it was
likely Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s href="">Robert
Kennedy and His Times
. Not a bad choice for someone seriously
considering, if not already decided on, running for the presidency in
2008. It's also one of my favorite books.

In fact, as someone pretty familiar with Robert Kennedy, I'd like to offer a suggestion to Senator Obama. Given some of the things you have in common with Kennedy -- namely, the surging crowds that flock to your every appearance -- I'd like for you to take note of this passage in chapter 40, with special emphasis on the last sentence.

Richard Harwood of
the Washington Post and other newspapermen began to change their
minds about the clamorous crowds. Maybe there was something more to it
than demagoguery. "We discovered in 1968," Harwood said later, "this deep,
almost mystical bond that existed between Robert Kennedy and the Other
America. It was a disquieting experience for reporters.... We were forced
to recognize in Watts and Gary and Chimney Rock [Nebraska] that the real
stake in the American electoral process involved not the fate of
speech-writers and fund-raisers but the lives of millions of people
seeking hope out of despair."

When Robert Kennedy was on the stump, his words -- though beautiful -- were not what attracted people to him. It was a deep, passionate connection that the best rhetoric cannot fake. It was real.

In 1968, Harwood was a tough former Marine and seasoned journalist. He had
heard Kennedy's stump speech hundreds of times, yet even he could not
remain cynical toward the very real connections Kennedy made with his
audiences. Harwood was even planning for a transfer as he could no longer
consider himself objective, but then Kennedy was assassinated. Afterwards,
he collected a poster: a drawing of Kennedy around which friends and
staffers quoted and memorialized the slain candidate. Harwood later gave
it to a friend, as he didn't want to be reminded of how he came to care so
much for a subject.

Senator Obama, understand that the crowds did not feed off of Robert
Kennedy -- it was the other way around. Another reporter in the Kennedy
pool, Jules Witcover, noted in his excellent chronicle of the '68
campaign, href="">85
, that Kennedy needed those mobs of admirers to sustain him.
Perhaps it's a natural reaction to riding high on filled-to-capacity
events, with every day spent wondering when the people will stop coming.
But if what Harwood and others observed is true, Kennedy needed to see his
supporters' faces and to touch their hands. To him, that connection was
more important than any speech, or any typical political hurdle by which
we measure campaigns today.

Like me, a lot of people still don't know much about Senator Obama, or if
he's the real thing. Some like to compare him to Robert Kennedy for the
emotions and the idealism that he is so good at stirring. But there's more
to it than that, as Senator Obama is surely reading -- at least once he
catches up on his sleep.