RFK tribute points contrast in Clinton

ON THE SCENE

July 16, 1992|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

NEW YORK -- There is a certain irony in the Democrats' decision to use this convention as an occasion for a tribute to Robert F. Kennedy. The contrast between his brand of politics in 1968 and that of Gov. Bill Clinton today couldn't be sharper.

Mr. Clinton is a consummately cautious politician, who has gone to great lengths to build a centrist coalition behind a centrist program. Mr. Kennedy operated on the outer edge of the Democratic Party in demanding radical changes in the policy on the Vietnam War and in dealing with problems of the underclass. He was also an especially daring politician who, for example, chastised white college students, a natural constituency for him, for accepting draft deferments and allowing others to fight the war for them.

Much of the difference was a result of the different context. Mr. Kennedy came along in a time of economic expansion when there were still highly emotional litmus-test issues to be settled, most notably civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Today there are no issues with a comparable emotional content -- with the possible exception of abortion rights.

But Robert Kennedy was a candidate who evoked a frenzied response from Democrats. If Bill Clinton is capable of inspiring anything similar, he hasn't shown it.

*

For all their talk about how much they love one another, Democrats are remarkably unforgiving in their treatment of losers. After 12 years in the wilderness, former President Jimmy Carter was finally given a prime-time speaking slot on the convention program, apparently because his good works in retirement have improved his poll figures.

But three other big losers -- George S. McGovern of 1972, Walter F. Mondale of 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis of 1988 -- have been limited to cameo appearances.

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