The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, David Halberstam. New York, Open Road, 2013 (originally published in 1969).
Summary: This is a classic account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign tracing his decision to run, primary campaigns and evolving political vision that ended on the night of his primary victory in California.
We are entering primary season again. So I turned to this classic account by distinguished journalist David Halberstam, who traveled with Robert Kennedy during his 1968 campaign for the presidency, cut short on the night of his primary victory in California.
He begins with Kennedy’s struggle with the decision to run, which initially meant challenging the incumbent President in his own party. Veteran politicos still urged him to wait until 1972. Yet ever since Kennedy had broken with the Johnson administration on Viet Nam, many younger political advisers and many among the young and disaffected looked to him as a new kind of politician. Yet Kennedy kept waiting, allowing Eugene McCarthy to run a strong second to Johnson in New Hampshire. Halberstam traces the tormented realization that 1972 would be too long to wait. His entry and the continually eroding support for the war led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for another term.
Halberstam narrates the mad scramble to mount campaigns in Indiana and Nebraska, where Kennedy won victories. Then on to Oregon with neither the labor vote, nor large populations of disaffected. It was particularly chilling to read one narrative of Kennedy’s encounter with gun rights advocates who he accused of deception on the issue of passing gun registration and background check laws. He said,
“If we’re going to talk about this legislation, can’t we do it honestly and not say it does something that it doesn’t do? All this legislation does is keep guns from criminals and the mentally ill and those too young. With all the violence and murder and killings in the United States I think you will agree that we must keep firearms from those who have no business with guns or rifles.”
Halberstam’s comment is that the crowd “was not impressed.” I could not miss the ironic and almost prophetic character of Kennedy’s words, reading them a few days after the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon and the sadness that 47 years later and after a record number of mass shootings, we are still in the deadlock Kennedy faced in 1968.
The concluding chapter chronicles the exhausting campaign across California, Kennedy’s growing support among Blacks and Hispanics, his courageous engagement with radicals who tried to shout him down while they advocated anarchy, and the continued challenges of strategy as McCarthy turned more to media interviews rather than big but exhausting rallies. The book concludes with the Kennedy team plotting strategy to block Humphrey, who inherited Johnson’s delegates, while Kennedy headed to the hotel ballroom to give his victory speech only to be cut down by an assassin.
The “unfinished odyssey” was not simply about the tragically interrupted campaign. It was also about the evolution of Bobby Kennedy’s vision of and for America. As he distanced himself from the Johnson administration, he not only spoke out more against the quagmire of Viet Nam but also for the minorities struggling to find a place at America’s table. His family’s wealth freed him from the rich political patrons and enabled him to see the “other America”. We see his evolution from an aide to Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s and the oft-considered ruthless brother during John Kennedy’s presidency to an outsider with a breadth of vision and compassion that captured the imagination of the young and the disaffected. We’re left wondering what kind of president he might have been, where his odyssey would have ended, and how different America might be today.
The Open Road edition also includes a brief biography and photo spread chronicling the life of David Halberstam, who died tragically in an auto accident in 2007.
Reading this narrative is risky because one cannot help comparing Kennedy with today’s field. I suspect our judgments may vary with our political commitments. For me it reminded me of that tragic spring of 1968 (I was in eighth grade at the time) when we lost King and Kennedy. Read this if nothing else to understand the “Kennedy mystique” narrated by one of the great journalists and writers of this period.