Robert Kennedy lives on, 30 years after his death At the assassination's anniversary, a former aide and distinguished journalist argues for RFK's greatness.

May 31, 1998|By Edwin O. Guthman | Edwin O. Guthman,Special to the sun

Imagine Robert F. Kennedy is alive and running for re-election to the U.S. Senate today. Would he be on the hustings from early morning to late at night - engulfed by eager men, women and children like those who jammed the streets and cheered him wherever he campaigned in the 1960s? Or would he be confining his campaign to as many slick TV commercials as he could afford and making a few appearances before small, friendly audiences, avoiding press conferences and any other appearance that he could not control, like so many candidates do today?

There's no doubt in my mind.

Kennedy knew campaigning inside and out. In managing his brother's campaigns and in his own, he quickly adjusted to television's growing impact and used the latest techniques for polling and influencing public opinion. And he'd be doing that today. But he'd also be handshaking morning shifts at factory gates, seeking votes in diverse forums and neighborhoods. He'd be speaking out -- challenging listeners to help the disadvantaged and work together, to oppose violence and organized crime and to take stands on public issues.

Kennedy meant what he said -- all the time -- and in putting his words into action, he would go all the way -- all the time. His followers and his enemies had come to realize that well before his assassination -- minutes after he claimed victory in the presidential primary election in California, 30 long years ago this week. It was at the core of his support and his opposition and is the key today to analyzing his public career.

People who tangled with him in political hustings, in congressional hearings or in court stereotyped him as "ruthless," "vicious," "power-hungry," "vengeful" and "opportunistic." His family, friends, aides and people he helped remember him as truthful, candid, courageous, caring and unalterably committed to justice and freedom.

He remains controversial despite, since his death, having been the subject of books by the score and several television documentaries. Books published as the 30th anniversary neared include "Make Gentle the Life of This World" by Kennedy's youngest son, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy (Harcourt Brace & Company, 188 pages, $20), a collection of quotations from RFK's speeches; "The Last Patrician," by Michael Knox Bean (St. Martin's Press, 251 pages, $23.95); "Robert Kennedy -- Brother Protector" by James W. Hilty (Temple University Press, 642 pages, $34.95 ) and "A Common Good: The Friendship Between Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell," by Helen O'Donnell (William Morrow, 352 pages, $26).

How can a person find the real Bob Kennedy? Those of us who knew him well would say this: disregard analyses that attempt to probe his psyche and look at what he did. For example:

In 1956, a few weeks before his 30th birthday, Kennedy, the chief counsel of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, began investigating whether Teamsters Union leaders were corrupt and had ties to organized crime.

"I had only a vague impression of the Teamsters Union -- only a notion that it was big and tough," he said, but 18 months later, after recruiting capable investigators and finding that corrupt labor leaders were in league with crime syndicate bosses, he told his staff, "either we're going to be successful or they're going to have the country . . ." and he wrote "If we do not on a national scale attack organized criminals with weapons and techniques as effective as their own, they will destroy us."

The committee's findings - Kennedy took responsibility for the accuracy of his witnesses' testimony - led to passage of the Labor Reform Act, making embezzlement of union funds a federal crime and providing for free elections, including a secret ballot, and requiring unions to file detailed financial and administrative reports with the Department of Labor.

In February 1961, two days after taking the oath as attorney general in his brother's cabinet, he acted to mobilize all 27 federal law enforcement units -- from the FBI to the Civil Aeronautics Board -- in a coordinated effort to combat organized crime, which despite shifting degrees of motivation and effectiveness, depending largely on who is in the White House, continues today.

It was the same with civil rights. When he became attorney general he understood that the country had been intractable in redressing African-Americans' historical grievances and recognized that civil rights would be among the new administration's major problems.

Because the Justice Department pushed the civil rights agenda, putting the federal government into the fight for the first time morally as well as actively, the groundwork was done that led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the Johnson administration.

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