Bobby Kennedy and the Politics of Timeliness


American politics is littered with “sure-bet” candidates who for any number of reasons never ascended to presidential glory.

Some were revealed as under-vetted rascals, eliminated from contention by their own secret excesses; some proved hollow on the issues, ultimately more style than substance; others were taken unawares by a fickle, madcap, “Dewey Defeats Truman” electorate that polled one way but voted another.

And one was shot dead.

Had he survived unto old age, Bobby Kennedy would’ve turned 90 in November. Gone but not forgotten, his murder at the hand of an assassin bent on avenging Kennedy’s support for Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War remains one of liberalism’s most grievous moments in time.

And perhaps one of the most portentous.

It should be noted in advance even the most credible speculation about an RFK administration is at best a series of educated guesses; for as with other progressives in his era, Kennedy teetered between unbridled optimism and somber sentience for perils at home and abroad: Vietnam; Soviet relations; nuclear arms proliferation; racism; sexism; poverty; campus and urban unrest.

But while we’re bereft for many absolute certainties about a second Kennedy's presidency, RFK’s confidants, contemporaries and biographers have reached consensus on at least three:

1. Kennedy would have ended the conflict in Vietnam in short order, sparing as many as 38,000 American lives and saving billions of dollars for domestic programs;

2. An already fractured nation would have been spared the trauma and embarrassment of Watergate – our “long national nightmare”;

3. If elected for a second term, Kennedy would have put before Congress the names of not one but five Supreme Court justices, shifting the ideology of the Judiciary for decades to come.

4. Given reality and the passing of time, Bobby Kennedy’s “would-have” alternate presidential universe may strike younger generations as more pipe-dream ruminations from their liberal but fogyish tribal elders.

And that’s partly so. But it’s also true those progressives that experienced Bobby Kennedy's short-lived presidential campaign in real time were imprinted with something in short supply in today’s Democratic Party, and try as we might we can't let go: hope in the form of the right person at the right time.

Not a savior but a guide. Not a martyr to the cause but a champion for the right.

In a June 2008 Huffington Post article written at the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, columnist Blake Fleetwood describes RFK's politics of timeliness:

“Kennedy was the perfect messenger, the royal heir, who could bridge the divide between the old world and the newly emerging one. He had strong ties to the traditional Democratic Party machine that had elected his brother and yet, was able to harness the energy, anger and hope that the post-WW II generation – the largest ever – was producing...

“[But] we were cheated out of the chance to see how his ideas and dreams would have played out. RFK was not a perfect man, none of us is, but he was the right man at the right time...”

Boomer nostalgia aside, there can be no more Bobby Kennedys, no more 1968. But today’s progressives can be glad that in his second term this president has channeled something of Bobby Kennedy's sense of timeliness, sparking at least for now a palpable sense of urgency too long missing from the party he cherished and served.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2015

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