The Martyr and the Mischief-Maker
(Note: I posted a slightly more polite--but still too mean for the faithful--version of this entry at Daily Kos: see here if you're wondering how this was received by the lefty sheep)
The Democratic polemicist David Sirota recently wrote on Daily Kos asking the same plaintive question that Democrats have been wondering for almost forty years now: Where is Our Bobby Kennedy?
It's an odd question for Sirota to ask. This is the guy who helped turn the liberal challenge against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut into something of a jihad, who's assailed Barack Obama as an empty-suit sellout, and who's constantly pushing every Democrat on the national scene to be more absolutist, more unyielding, more extreme, more confrontational. He's the enemy of equivocation, compromise and inconstancy--all traits that the flesh-and-blood RFK, as opposed to the sainted memory of the man, showed throughout his too-brief career in public life.
Remember the circumstances by which Robert F. Kennedy went from a talented but ambivalently regarded inside political operator to the great martyr of the modern American left. The loss of his brother humanized RFK, transforming him from "JFK's Haldeman" best known for his sharp elbows in the 1960 campaign and his stint working for Joe McCarthy, into a figure of popular sympathy. But that didn't immediately translate into power: Kennedy's strange journey in 1964, running a carpetbagger Senate campaign in New York simultaneously on the coattails of and at arm's-length from LBJ, ended in victory, but he won by a full two million votes less than Johnson's margin in the Empire State.
Over the next three years, he tiptoed toward and back away from the mantle of progressive leadership from within the Democratic Party, pushed on the one hand by idealistic young aides like Peter Edelman (who remains a great progressive champion in his own right today) and on the other by the old politicos who'd advised his brother and were keeping an eye on the 1972 presidential campaign for Bobby. Kennedy's equivocation on Vietnam and his personal rivalry with Johnson captured press attention, and his occasional brilliant speech on South African apartheid and Appalachian poverty indicated some growth and deepening in his character. But he was neither a powerful lawmaker nor an unambiguous public champion--more show horse than work horse.
When it became clear that a large faction within the dominant Democratic coalition, led by the liberal New York activist Allard Lowenstein, was going to push an intra-party challenge to Johnson in 1968, Bobby was the man they wanted. But, with the Sorensons and O'Donnells whsipering in his ear to keep his powder dry for '72, he wouldn't commit--and it fell to Eugene McCarthy, who had his own personal animus against LBJ, to pick up the standard. The David Sirotas of that time eagerly and entirely gave themselves over to Gene; the Tet Offensive in January 1968 transformed the debate over Vietnam; and McCarthy nearly upset Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, coming close to a majority of the votes and winning most of the delegates. Only then did RFK join the race; soon after that, LBJ withdrew, and the progressives enjoyed four days of bliss before Dr. King was assassinated and the horrors of 1968 began in earnest.
If Sirota had been active in the mid-to-late 1960s, I have absolutely no doubt that he, of all people, would have assailed RFK as an unprincipled sellout, a vampire sucking at the lifeblood of the great and good McCarthy who was trying to justify, or at very best make an insignificant gesture of atonement toward, the deeply immoral Vietnam policy Bobby himself had helped craft as the sinister helpmeet to his similarly unprincipled brother. Two scions of the Establishment, Sirota would have called them, trading on their looks and charisma to manipulate the emotions of the people toward the goal of perpetuating the power of monsters like their father.
It need hardly be said that the Kennedys' heroism is in no small part a product of their untimely deaths; they did a fair amount of nasty stuff, as was noted at the time. JFK's 1960 victory was greatly aided not just by Mayor Daley's shenanigans in Illinois, but by just enough racist pandering to keep the South in the Democratic column. And even in RFK's last campaign in California, he made some of the same appeals to soft racism--implying that McCarthy would favor building tenements in white suburban communities outside LA--that would help Nixon win the election.
Sirota would have hammered Kennedy on these points, on all the Kennedys' compromises and corner-cuttings. Just as, if he'd lived in the time of FDR, or Lincoln, he would have gone after those presidents for their moral failings. That those men might have known what they were doing--just as, perhaps, did RFK, or similarly flawed heroes of today--never occurs to the infallible Sirota types.
What Sirota constantly fails to understand--as was never more evident than in his imbecilic and infantile Nation hit piece on Barack Obama a few months back--is that the (notionally) principled heroes of the Gene McCarthy or Russ Feingold type are history's lovable losers: the people who at most can set the stage for a pragmatic leader to come in and accomplish real change--and at least as often, in their unassailably good intentions, pave the road to hell. Consider the possibility that the McCarthy and RFK challenges to the undeniably flawed Lyndon Johnson opened the door to Nixon's election and the disasters, from the perpetuation of the war to Watergate and the permanent degradation of our politics, that followed.
Yes, the world needs Charles Sumner types to lay down the occasional moral marker. But it takes a Lincoln--and, dear lord, how Sirota would have flayed his habeus-suspending, slavery-equivocating ass--to bring the country toward that better place. That the leader can't get them as far, or as fast, as one might prefer, is the sad reality of history... but that these people are subsequently venerated suggests that they did the best they could, and on balance succeeded brilliantly.
I can't imagine a leader more foreign to Sirota's absolutist sensibility than the late Robert F. Kennedy.