Fifty years after his death, his deep conservative beliefs continue to define him.
It was 50 years ago, June 5, 1968, that Robert F. Kennedy was shot by a 24-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian immigrant looking to exact revenge upon the New York senator for his support of Israel a year earlier in the Six Day War.
“My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming more and more of an unshakable obsession,” Sirhan Sirhan had raged in his diary on May 18, 1968. “R.F.K. must die. R.F.K. must be killed. R.F.K. must be assassinated.” He chose the anniversary of the war as his date for action: “Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before 5 June 68.”
Using a .22 revolver, Sirhan lodged three bullets in Kennedy, one of them piercing through his brain. Bobby Kennedy went down. He would never rise again.
Much has since been speculated about what this shocking moment meant within the larger context of American politics, the world, and the tragic saga of the Kennedy family. Looking back, it was arguably the first dramatic manifestation of Middle East terrorism in the United States. It also was not unrelated to the Cold War: the June 1967 Six Day War had been precipitated by the Kremlin and its malicious mischief in the Middle East. As for the American political scene, it was permanently altered: the assassination ended RFK’s path to the White House, particularly on a historic night when he had just won the Democratic Party primary in California. Democrats would need to find another nominee. Bobby Kennedy was out. And for liberals, they lost a hero, an icon. They lost — they believed — a political soulmate.
Or had they?
Liberal or Anti-Liberal?
Truth be told, it’s hard to look back at RFK as a liberal — certainly by today’s standards of liberalism, but even by the standards of the ’60s. To be sure, it would also be hard to flatly call him a conservative, or to fully dismiss liberalism in his life or certainly in his 1968 presidential run.
Liberals swarmed to RFK for the ’68 presidential campaign. They pinned their hopes and dreams on this next Kennedy. Wlady Pleszczynski, longtime editor at The American Spectator, tells me of witnessing Kennedy at a Santa Barbara campaign appearance the day of the Oregon primary, just a week before the fateful California primary. (Interestingly, the other pillar here at TAS, Bob Tyrrell, also had a unique eyewitness experience with RFK just before he died.) The campaign song for the event was a version of pro-communist Woody Guthrie’s dreadful “This Land Is Your Land.” At this moment, Wlady detected no sign whatsoever of Kennedy’s old anti-communism. There was a strong civil-rights focus, plus lots of pabulum and trendy spiritualism the hippie movement had embraced. Wlady wonders if the liberal aura in the air that day was sincerely Kennedy or “a certain political ambition at work.” By that point, Bobby was a stridently anti-LBJ senator carefully positioning himself vis-à-vis Eugene McCarthy’s Vietnam stance.
I can picture that very scene. It was the feel around Kennedy at the time. Liberals, in a rush of emotion and sentimentalism in search of a political savior amid a crazy time, flocked to Bobby Kennedy. To this day, liberals’ primary claim that Bobby was a “liberal” is based largely on his concern for the poor, for the working class, and for African-Americans. We should, however, refuse to accept the assumption that such noble concerns make a man a liberal, and not a conservative. Really, it’s the matter and means of how one deals with those concerns that make one a liberal or conservative. Even then, many of RFK’s policy prescriptions for poverty were much more in line with conservative solutions than left-wing ones. As for RFK’s passion for civil rights, the same can be said of fellow Catholics (the Catholic point is crucial here, more on this in a moment) like Michael Novak, Father Robert Sirico, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and others who left the political left after the 1960s. And yet, even then, RFK, a supposed civil-rights champion, as attorney general had wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr., who he apparently neither liked or trusted, as his sympathetic biographers widely concede.
When I googled RFK this morning, the first thing that popped up was this history.com summation: “Robert Kennedy fought organized crime and worked for civil rights for African Americans. In the Senate, he was a committed advocate of the poor and racial minorities, and opposed escalation of the Vietnam War.”
That’s the totality of what the pop-up entry states about RFK. Liberals have tried to make the man their own, fashioning him in their own image, if not their own fantasy.
And so, with that proviso, consider the following thoughts on RFK’s political-ideological thinking.
Old-School Democrat and Anti-Communist
The reality is that RFK, like his late brother, like their father, were old-school Democrats, before the Democratic Party — and before today’s Kennedy clan, ultimately embodied by the almost cartoonish-buffoonish Ted Kennedy — all went hard left.
For starters, RFK, like JFK, like the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, was an ardent anti-communist, which immediately put him at odds with leftists in the party. RFK was a Cold Warrior with a passion for covert operations, including against Cuba, where he detested Fidel Castro. One snooty JFK adviser poked fun at what he called RFK’s hawkish “childlike fascination” with covert activities. From the outset, Bobby had supported the Vietnam War.
If this is a surprise to modern liberals, they will be aghast to learn that RFK loyally served the ultimate fire-breathing anti-communist, a man they consider an eternal political demon: Senator Joe McCarthy. Bobby Kennedy was an attorney and staff member to McCarthy, whom he liked very much and considered a kindred spirit, especially in their mutual intense anti-communism.
Liberals want to convince themselves that RFK reluctantly hooked up with McCarthy’s staff and then only served a short stint before dashing out the door to put the ignoble experience behind him, disgustedly washing his hands of McCarthy’s dirt and blood. That is untrue. Bobby Kennedy believed that Joe McCarthy was correct in his accusations of a federal government fraught by communist infiltration. He saw McCarthy as a brave and principled patriot whose cause was morally just, and who was vilified for seeking to do the right thing. He worked for McCarthy at the peak of the Wisconsin senator’s influence, and never made any apology for it.
Moreover, Bobby wasn’t the only Kennedy who liked McCarthy. Old Tail-Gunner Joe was a valued family friend who had spent weekends at Hyannis Port at the invitation of Joe Kennedy, where he had a blast. McCarthy even dated two of Bobby’s sisters, Eunice and Jean. If that was not personal enough, Bobby in 1951 asked Joe McCarthy — at the height of his power — to be the godfather of his first child, Kathleen, who over 40 years later would become lieutenant governor of Maryland and is today a Democratic Party fundraiser. McCarthy happily accepted. Kathleen was born on the Fourth of July 1951. Yes, to repeat: Joe McCarthy is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s godfather, a fact rarely mentioned by liberals and surely barely known by them. (Kathleen’s Wikipedia page contains no mention of her famous godfather.)
When Joe McCarthy died in 1957, Bobby was distraught. He wept. “Very upsetting for me,” he wrote in his diary the day he got the news. “I dismissed the office for the day. It was all very difficult for me as I feel that I have lost an important part of my life.” Bobby caught a plane to be at McCarthy’s burial in Wisconsin.
With Joe McCarthy, Bobby also shared a committed Irish Catholicism in addition to their strong anti-communism. (In fact, McCarthyism’s Catholicism is often dismissed or ignored altogether, but it should be recognized as a not insignificant source for his unflagging anti-communism.) Bobby was easily the most pious of all the Kennedy men. He was socially and morally conservative — what one biographer dubbed a “conservative Catholic.” He had 11 children. He was not only opposed to militant feminism but also to gay liberation.
For RFK, the visceral anti-communism never went away, along with other beliefs that were conservative. It will shock liberals’ sensibilities to learn that Bobby Kennedy was, like his older brother, not comfortable with the liberal label, or even with liberals. He seemed to have at best a conflicted relationship. He repeatedly insisted that he was not a liberal. And given his open contempt for them and their ideology, why would he be? “What my father said about businessmen applies to liberals,” said Kennedy. “They’re sons of bitches.” He referred to liberals as “sons of bitches” who were “in love with death.”
(This “love-with-death” characterization from RFK isn’t exactly popular among liberals. It has been reported a handful times, albeit without elaboration let alone celebration, by Kennedy biographers Ronald Steel and Evan Thomas, by Sean Wilentz in the New York Times Review of Books, and by a few others. The original full quotation is published in a 1988 volume by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman, Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words. When read in full context, it isn’t entirely clear what Kennedy meant by “in love with death.” He was probably referring to certain intransigent liberals who were willing to kill an entire piece of worthwhile civil-rights legislation if they didn’t get exactly what they wanted. Nonetheless, it isn’t flattering, and it’s just one of several RFK statements about liberals that liberals will find unsettling.)
And “contempt” isn’t too strong of a word here. Chris Matthews, the longtime liberal and MSNBC host, in his book, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, says that Kennedy developed such a “contempt for liberals” during the Adlai Stevenson 1956 presidential campaign that he ended up crossing party lines and voting for Eisenhower.
Common Cause with… Reagan?
Among the most interesting biographers of Kennedy is Ronald Steel, a liberal professor who wrote an insightful 2000 work, In Love With Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy. He notes that Kennedy forged a curious kinship with certain white radicals because they at least agreed on one thing: “they had a common enemy: liberals.”
So obvious was RFK’s discomfort with liberals, not to mention his obvious conservative streak, that no less than the New York Times, citadel of liberalism, was compelled to title an April 28, 1968 piece on RFK: “Kennedy: Meet the Conservative.” That was when Bobby Kennedy was running for president, and mere weeks before the end of his life. Another presidential prospect that year, California Governor Ronald Reagan, would say of RFK: “I get the feeling I’ve been writing some of his speeches.” Reagan said that RFK “was talking more and more like me.” RFK’s words, much like his late brother’s words, were at times strikingly similar to Ronald Reagan’s words. That included Reagan’s attacks on the New Deal, the welfare state, counter-productive federal anti-poverty programs, and big government. It also included foreign policy and anti-communism.
And yet the farthest reaches of the left — namely, the communist left — reviled RFK. By 1968, the year he was assassinated, RFK was a rising focal point of anger and protest by the Marxist left. Mark Rudd, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and other ’60s communists detested mainstream Democrats such as the Kennedy brothers. Rudd, who shut down Columbia University in the spring of 1968, wrote that the likes of RFK and JFK before him were “trying to destroy our movement.” Rudd bitterly complained that it was “Robert Kennedy, his martyred brother John, and LBJ” who “had given us Vietnam in the first place.” Rudd and his SDS revolutionaries didn’t like traditional Democrats. That’s why they drew a bull’s eye on the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
How badly did they hate RFK? The four authors of the 1974 venomous screed, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, published as the “political statement of the Weather Underground,” dedicated their manifesto to, among others, Sirhan Sirhan. The four authors were Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn.
One wonders what RFK’s reaction might have been to the chaos at the Democratic convention later that summer in Chicago. But he’d never get that far, because of Sirhan Sirhan and what transpired shortly after midnight, June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
For the Kennedy family, this second brutal blow since November 1963 was beyond tragic. It was unthinkable. Two dead Kennedy boys, both killed at the peak of their popularity, within five years.
Bobby especially had taken JFK’s murder hard. He was in sheer agony. Friends say that after the shooting of his big brother, RFK, already prone to melancholy, dove into the writings of the ancient Greeks on hubris and fate. He felt a sense of despair and became fatalistic. And as fate would have it, June 5, 1968, would be his last stand.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20thCentury; Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century; and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism.