By Paul Schwartz
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Late last month, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," spoke to a packed crowd of 175 WDC members and guests about his new book, Bobby Kennedy - A Raging Spirit (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Maryland Democratic Party chair Kathleen Matthews introduced her husband as someone focused for decades on the issues of the day - someone who always insisted, "No spin allowed!"
Mr. Matthews' admiration for Bobby Kennedy, both for his character and for his role in our nation's history, shone through in his remarks. Bobby Kennedy was an essential player in his brother's campaigns - first for the Senate, and then for the Presidency. Bobby was a pivotal figure in the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in pushing the Civil Rights Act to the forefront of the Kennedy agenda. Matthews pointed out the contrast between Bobby's extreme family wealth and his passion for the civil rights of those who were less well off.
Patriarch Joseph Kennedy's presidential ambitions for his sons, first Joe Jr. and then Jack, overlooked his youngest son Bobby. It was this childhood in which nothing came easily that honed Bobby's tendency to relate to the underdog, the worker, and those in need. Matthews theorized that Bobby Kennedy was able to connect with the white working class in a way that today's Democrats seem unable to match.
At 26, Bobby ran his brother's Senatorial campaign in which Jack defeated popular incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge by more than 70,000 votes. At 30, he tackled organized crime. At 34, he ran Jack's successful Presidential campaign against sitting Vice President, Richard Nixon.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, however, best captured the essence of Bobby Kennedy especially in comparison with today's political leaders. Every administration has plenty of hawks; many voices in the Kennedy administration were calling for a military strike against the missiles in Cuba. Bobby Kennedy, though, supported blockading Cuba until a deal could be struck that enabled both sides to save face without the loss of innocent lives. Bobby Kennedy cared about innocent lives.
He also cared about the poor. It was Bobby who addressed an African American crowd in an African American neighborhood the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, saying that he too "had a brother assassinated by a white guy." In the aftermath of JFK's assassination, Bobby was a vocal advocate against mail order gun purchases. How prescient he was, and how tragic that 50 years later we continue to debate whether to institute stronger controls against gun violence.
Mr. Matthews traced Bobby's transformation from supporting to opposing the Vietnam War - an example of Bobby's willingness to admit he had been wrong.
Responding to a question about Bobby's likely impact on history relative to JFK's, had Bobby not been assassinated, Mr. Matthews expressed doubt as to whether Bobby could have beaten Hubert Humphrey for the Presidential nomination because back-room politics had more influence than the primary system in that era. Mr. Matthews attributed RFK and LBJ's inability to work well together, despite their shared commitment to improving poor people's lives, to Bobby's grudge against LBJ for having spoken ill of Joe Kennedy, Sr., many years earlier.
When asked to explain how today's political atmosphere differs from the politics of 50 years ago, Mr. Matthews lamented the lack of empathy and compassion in today's politics. He also cited today's lack of deference to political leaders. Ending on a positive note, he pointed to the gains women and minorities have made in the modern political arena.
Bobby Kennedy - A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews