One of the reasons that it’s hard not to romanticize RFK and his legacy, is that he was a hell of a romantic figure. In addition to the Kennedy mistique, being a great-looking guy and poster-boy for family men, he had a compelling a story. He was known as a “ruthless” political operative, who worked for, ugh, Joe McCarthy and crusaded against labor rackettering. But he also ran his brother’s successful presidential campaign and was JFK’s most trusted advisor, who played a critical role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like JFK, he had wit and eloquence to burn, though not as much charm or warmth. By most accounts, RFK was a damn good Attorney General and U.S. Senator.
The assassination of his brother, who was also his closest friend, was a soul-shattering experience that seemed to make RFK more vulnerable and humane. He turned his attention toward healing his family, while navigating the complex politics of the era. But many who knew RFK say that he had a transformative experience in the Spring of 1967, when he visited Marks, Mississippi at the urging of NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, Marian Wright, who felt strongly that Kennedy needed to see first hand the kind of brutal poverty Black Americans were experiencing in the Mississippi Delta. She was right. Kennedy spent some quality time with the impoverished families and their children and was said to be deeply affected. Public service was always a Kennedy family tradition. But when Kennedy left Marks, he became more determined than ever to become a leader who could help alleviate human suffering. From then on, his was a powerful voice for the disadvantaged and downtrodden, especially African and Hispanic Americans.
But Kennedy also could connect with white blue-collar Americans in ways that few of his fellow Democrats could match. As Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow of the Century Foundation, explains in his outstanding essay on “The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy“:
This report makes three central points. First, it outlines the evidence suggesting Kennedy achieved a remarkable political coalition in time of strong political antagonism. Although contemporary witnesses to the campaign believed Kennedy’s appeal to be strong, some historians have subsequently questioned RFK’s ability to attract working-class whites. This report seeks to debunk the debunkers, drawing upon polling data and precinct results in key states to suggest Kennedy had powerful appeal with working-class blacks and whites alike.
…In the end, he was able to communicate that he cared about both groups in a way that few politicians can today by respecting both their interests and their legitimate values. Unlike right-wing urban populists, he was inclusive of minority populations, and unlike today’s liberalism, Kennedy placed a priority on being inclusive of working-class whites. In short, he was a liberal without the elitism and a populist without the racism.
…as he began his 1968 campaign, RFK faced a major political dilemma. The New Deal Coalition of working-class whites and blacks, which had supported progressive candidates for more than three decades, was in tatters, rent apart by racial strife and resentment. Should he try to bring these groups back together, or instead seek a new coalition of highly-educated whites and minority voters?
If the challenge was daunting, Kennedy had a plan. Whereas progressives typically told working-class Americans they will look out for their interests, and conservatives typically told these voters they support their values, Kennedy would emphasize connection to both their economic interests and their legitimate values.28 Kennedy would underline common class interests as progressives traditionally did. But he would do more, and suggest that he respected working-class values of hard work and respect for the law. He was not going to backtrack on his commitment to civil rights or his commitment to pursuing peace in Vietnam. But he would augment the pursuit of racial justice and peace with a commitment to toughness—on crime, on welfare, and on national security. This message was reinforced by a personal history of strength that was meant to give working-class whites and blacks the sense that he respected their American values as well as their interests.
…Kennedy told journalist Jack Newfield, “You know, I’ve come to the conclusion that poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color. I think there has to be a new kind of coalition to keep the Democratic party going, and to keep the country together. . . . Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids. . . . We have to convince the Negroes and the poor whites that they have common interests.
During the campaign, RFK continually pounded away at the ability of rich people to escape taxes by exploiting loopholes. He offered “A Program for a Sound Economy,” which the Wall Street Journal denounced in an editorial entitled, “Soak the Rich.”31 Lewis Kaden, who was primarily responsible for the proposal, says it was in the classic populist tradition “of attacking big corporation and rich individuals who weren’t paying their fair share of taxes.”32Recognizing that tax reform was a complicated issue, he tried to cut through the fog by calling for a minimum 20 percent income tax for those who earned over $50,000 (in 1968, a considerable sum) in order “to prevent the wealthy from continuing to escape taxation completely.”33 RFK speechwriter Jeff Greenfield recalled in an interview that on the stump, Kennedy was not afraid to name names. “He would constantly cite” oil tycoon H. L. Hunt. Kennedy “would use statistics of 200 people who made $200,000 a year or more and paid no taxes. . . He kept coming back to those 200 people . . . and then he’d say: ‘One year Hunt paid $102. I guess he was feeling generous.’ If you think about it, there is no better populist issue than that issue.
Progressives frequently hit issues of economic inequality in campaigns, but RFK’s message was particularly strong, which earned him the enmity of business leaders. A survey conducted by Fortune magazine found Kennedy was the most unpopular presidential candidate among business leaders since Franklin D. Roosevelt. “While President Kennedy was never a great favorite among businessmen,” a March 1968 Fortune article noted, “the suspicion with which he was regarded is nothing compared to the anger aroused by his younger brother.” The survey of business leaders found that “mention of the name Bobby Kennedy produced an almost unanimous chorus of condemnation . . . there is agreement that Kennedy is the one public figure who could produce an almost united front of business opposition.”…
Kahlenberg goes on to write about RFK’s positions on tricky social issues, like “law and order,” always paring his policies with statements of compassion for those who were suffering and experiencing hardship. Kahlenberg notes further, that in the Indiana campaign,
Journalist Jules Witcover wrote of the motorcade: “In the history of American political campaigning, certainly in primary elections, Kennedy’s final day in the Indiana campaign must be recorded among the most incredible.” He continued: “What set the motorcade apart, and what made it significant for Kennedy the candidate, was the unbroken display of adulation and support as he moved from Negro neighborhood to blue collar ethnic back to Negro again, over and over and over.”82 Robert Coles told Kennedy, “There is something going on here that has to do with real class politics.”
On May 7, primary election day, journalists were struck by the remarkable coalition Kennedy seemed to have assembled. On the one hand, RFK did extremely well with black voters, winning 86 percent of their votes against McCarthy and Humphrey stand-in Roger Branigin.84 “What was surprising,” political analysts Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote, “was his record among the backlash ethnic voters that gave George Wallace his remarkable vote in Indiana four years ago….While Negro precincts were delivering around 90 per cent for Kennedy, he was running 2 to 1 ahead in some Polish precincts.”
Kahlenberg goes into considerable detail regarding RFK’s vote percentages in the primaries and debunking the view that Kennedy didn’t perform well with white blue collar workers. Among Kahlenberg’s conclusions, he notes
If a class-based, multi-racial progressive coalition is possible, necessary and desirable, what kind of policies could progressives pursue to begin the effort to recreate the Kennedy coalition? The balance of this report outlines four ideas: (1) Stay committed to progressive principles of inclusion for marginalized groups; (2) consistently emphasize common class interests; (3) signal the inclusion of working-class whites by extending civil rights remedies to class inequality; and (4) respect the legitimate values of working-class people.
In his closing paragraph, Kahlenberg frames the challenge facing Democrats:
If the campaign of Robert Kennedy fifty years ago showed that the progressive coalition of working-class whites and minorities is possible, the election of Donald Trump showed that efforts to renew the progressive coalition are vitally necessary. Trump has governed as Kennedy’s segregationist opposite George Wallace might have, absent Wallace’s leavening of liberal economic policy. We have seen the disaster that transpires when progressives ignore or condescend to white-working class voters and allow a demagogue to fill the vacuum. A half century after Robert Kennedy’s remarkable campaign, his approach deserves a second look. As Kennedy himself often said: “We can do better.”
As we commemorate the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, Kahlenberg’s reflections offer hope that RFK’s example remains instructive a half-century later. Democrats should give Kahlenberg’s article a thoughtful read.