John Baer: Obama & RFK, peas in a pod?

Posted: November 11, 2008

READING Thurston Clarke's

"The Last Campaign," a detailed account of RFK's 1968 run for president, I'm struck by similarities between back then and now.

In style, message and even some language, Bobby Kennedy's campaign shows some resemblance to Barack Obama's.

I'm not arguing that Obama's another Kennedy (all candidates, like all people, are different) or that "Obamalot" is coming to Washington.

It's just that the book, in examining RFK's campaign, reflects one we just saw.

"The big similarity," Clarke tells me, "is the ability of both Kennedy and Obama to inspire young people and minorities. . . .

You really haven't had young people excited about a politician since Bobby Kennedy, until now."

It's easy to see a match between two personally compelling candidates, neither of whom was given much chance at the outset, drawing large enthusiastic crowds, especially among younger voters.

But there's more. Both were running against the failed foreign policies of unpopular presidents not seeking re-election in the midst of unpopular wars.

Here's what Kennedy said 40 years ago about getting out of Vietnam:

"We can help them but we cannot try to do their jobs for them. . . . We cannot continue to deny and postpone the demands of our own people while spending billions in the name of the freedom of others."

Sound like Obama's argument against Iraq and spending $10 billion a month in a nation with an $80 billion surplus?

Or how about this:

In a speech in April '68, RFK talked of our "ill-considered military intervention" in Vietnam probably helping increase "the very Communist influence" it sought to prevent.

Substitute Iraq for Vietnam, replace "Communist" with "terrorist," and you've got an Obama argument.

Kennedy's campaign, like Obama's, drew record, sometimes frenzied, crowds to the point that RFK worried about scaring "older white voters," the book says.

There's even a celebrity reference.

Remember John McCain trying to portray Obama as a Britney Spears/Paris Hilton-type popular icon? Well, Kennedy worried that, because of his crowds, he'd be seen as "Frank Sinatra running for president."

And Kennedy drew the same criticism as Obama for social and economic proposals.

The late Stewart Alsop, then with the Saturday Evening Post, wrote that upper- and upper-middle-class voters and many in the business community feared that Kennedy's ideas "could lead to a major redistribution of income in the United States."

Sounds like McCain calling Obama "The Redistributor," no?

And, yeah, it was a different time. Kennedy focused on Vietnam, civil rights and poverty. His speeches were impassioned, often reflecting what was reported as his outrage against injustice. Obama is cooler, more measured in delivery.

And Kennedy didn't have to deal with wedge issues such as abortion (it was illegal) or gay rights. He did, however, advocate registering guns, for obvious reasons - it was less than five years since his brother was assassinated with a mail-order rifle.

Speaking of which, assassination was a shared, sometimes spoken fear in both campaigns.

Clarke says both campaigns were "courageous" just for running despite that fear.

And this is how Clarke's book sums up Kennedy's effort:

"Whether Robert Kennedy would have made a good president is unknowable. All that is certain is that during his campaign he convinced millions of Americans that he was a good man, perhaps a great man."

Clarke also writes that RFK's campaign sought to "reconcile rather than divide" Americans, to engage them in dialogue "rather than feed them the message of the day" and to appeal to their "better angels."

This last is a phrase from Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address. Obama frequently refers to Lincoln. When I ask Clarke if his wording was intentional, he says, "Yeah, it was."*

comments powered by Disqus