06/05/2008 12:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Robert F. Kennedy's Contested Legacy

Robert Kennedy's abrupt removal from the nation's political life left in disarray the new Democratic coalition he was working to build. In August 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the consequences of Kennedy's absence played out. The nationally televised street battles in downtown Chicago between peace demonstrators and police, which spilled onto the convention floor in shoving matches between delegates, had a devastating effect on the party. In 1968, Kennedy was one of the few politicians who could speak the language of the "Old Politics" with machine stalwarts like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, while still engaging in a constructive dialogue with the anti-war protesters whom Daley's police had beaten outside the convention hall.

The award-winning reporter, Theodore White, whose books on the Making of the President transformed campaign journalism, privately shared his impressions of the convention with Ethel Kennedy: "I write this from Chicago and the Democratic convention -- macabre, unbelievable, grotesque parody on the process of American politics. Most macabre is the spectacle of all our old friends split and divided and squabbling and spitting on each other. It is so goddamned sad. There is no comfort for me in the thought, which I always held, that Bob, had he lived, would have marched through this convention as its master -- and then on to the Presidency."

At the close of the convention, the delegates nominated Hubert Humphrey and flatly rejected a "peace plank" the anti-war wing tried to insert into the party's platform. Kennedy's goal at the convention had been to block any candidate from winning the nomination on the first ballot, and then aggressively create a stampede effect among delegates toward his camp. His experiences as John Kennedy's standard-bearer at the 1956 and 1960 Democratic conventions gave him an intimate knowledge of the nominating procedures. But it can never be determined whether or not Kennedy would have succeeded. What is known, however, is that Humphrey, who defended the Vietnam War until it proved politically fatal, led a dispirited Democratic Party into the November elections. The grassroots citizen energy that Kennedy and McCarthy had unleashed in the primaries had all but evaporated; there even emerged an anti-Humphrey "Dump the Hump" movement among the youth wing of the party.

The Republican Party's candidate, former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, who John Kennedy had narrowly defeated in 1960, ran television ads featuring the violence at the Democratic convention. Nixon won the presidency in a close race. And with the exception of President Jimmy Carter's single term, Nixon's 1968 victory ushered in a quarter century of Republican domination of the White House, and along with it a prolonged identity crisis for the Democrats. Robert Kennedy had said repeatedly that a Nixon presidency would be "unacceptable to the country."

Kennedy, like Martin Luther King, Jr., will be forever identified with the explosion of citizen activism that characterized the 1960s. He had leapt into the rough and tumble street politics of 1968, joining with community organizers in small venues and face-to-face meetings. Whether fielding questions in union halls or on college campuses, getting his hands bloodied in parades and motorcades, or enduring the berating of militants from a "black caucus" in Oakland, California, Kennedy made an effort to communicate with political activists at the local level, many of whom were far to his left on the political spectrum. The energy of the primary campaigns thrust Kennedy into the center of a volatile grass-roots fervor. Cesar Chavez likened the California campaign to "those heated elections they have south of the border." Kennedy took on the task not only because he needed "people power" to succeed, but by 1968 he largely agreed with the activists' viewpoint.

Kennedy began to look at American society with a far more critical eye. He believed the nation must stand for something other than consumerism and the pursuit of material wealth. "Our Gross National Product now soars above $800 billion a year," he said, "but that counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our streets of carnage. It counts the special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of natural wonder to chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and television programs, which glorify violence to sell toys to our children."

He lamented the loss of a higher purpose for America: "The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play," he said. "It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

Kennedy's legacy has become contested ground in the decades since his death. Conservatives have embraced his dedication to "law and order" as Attorney General, and his toughness as a prosecutor. It was Robert Kennedy who put organized crime on notice, and he showed his determination by snatching the mobster Carlos Marcello off a New Orleans street and deporting him. He also brought forth Joseph Valachi to blow the whistle on the Mafia. Conservatives have also praised Kennedy for his criticisms of Lyndon Johnson's social programs. He believed that the government should not breed dependency, but provide a safety net while emphasizing self-reliance. His public-private partnership in Bedford-Stuyvesant stands as a model for his goal of creating jobs to help the poor become working taxpayers. Some of Kennedy's working-class supporters were deeply conservative on social issues, and in the years after his death slowly drifted toward becoming "Reagan Democrats." On November 20, 2001, a Republican administration named the Department of Justice building in honor of Robert F. Kennedy.

In the summer of 1999, President William Jefferson Clinton evoked Robert Kennedy's memory while touring several impoverished communities. He traveled to some of the same places Kennedy had visited in the late 1960s, including the Mississippi Delta and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The President spoke out against the poverty that existed in America, and praised Kennedy's daughter, Kerry Kennedy, for her charitable works. At the same time, Kennedy's former legislative aide, Peter Edelman, who served in the Clinton Administration, resigned his post in protest after Clinton signed what Edelman believed to be a draconian welfare reform bill. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Edelman criticized Clinton's expedition, calling it a "cosmetic poverty tour." The episode shows that even among those who claim to be Robert Kennedy's ideological heirs the meaning of his legacy is still contested.

Yet there seems to be agreement on all sides that Kennedy was an extremely capable Attorney General. He played a pivotal role in dismantling the Jim Crow system of racial segregation in the South, and therefore he should be recognized as one of the most important figures ever to head the Justice Department.

Kennedy's work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers created a deep and ongoing bond between his family and the struggling Latino agricultural workers. His support for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign, and his work in behalf of African-American civil rights, has resonated with a younger generation of black political leaders. Currently, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation sponsors community projects and has granted cash prizes as part of its yearly human rights award to unsung activists from all over the world who work for social justice.

In November, 2005, when the RFK Memorial Foundation sponsored an 80th birthday celebration of Kennedy's life in the nation's capital, noted activists, authors, and politicians spoke about Kennedy's influence on their work. Those who spoke included Senators Edward Kennedy, Barack Obama, Paul Sarbanes, John Kerry, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as Congressional Representatives Edward Markey, John Lewis, Dennis Kucinich, and many others. Despite having his life cut short, Kennedy's legacy has clearly had a profound and lasting impact on a generation of Democratic leaders. (I had the honor of speaking about RFK's legacy at the same reception in the Mansfield Room.)

In his last speech, Kennedy said: "I do not believe I can be successful without your help and support. I ask this, not for myself, but for the cause and the ideas, which moved you to begin this great popular movement. . . . With you I know we can keep faith with the American need and the American desire for peace and for justice, and for a government dedicated to giving the people mastery over their own affairs and future."

Robert Kennedy worked in solidarity with the social movements of the 1960s. He allied himself with farm workers, progressive labor unionists, peace, civil rights, and anti-poverty activists, youth and students. These mobilized citizens, loosely associated with his 1968 campaign, represented a potential for the long-term organized resistance to racism, economic injustice, and jingoistic nationalism. He showed that democracy works best when it is energized from below. On March 16, 1968, when Kennedy entered the presidential primary races, his eighty-five day campaign demonstrated a kind of selfless patriotism worthy of emulation. Employing the broad themes of racial solidarity and peace in Vietnam, his campaign became a rallying point for Americans who wished to move the nation in a more egalitarian and compassionate direction. Robert Kennedy's legacy will continue to be contested, but it will be more often than not strongly identified with the spirit of grassroots activism.

The above excerpt is from the Conclusion of my most recent book: Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism, (Pearson, 2008).