On 5 June 1968, just after midnight, Robert Kennedy was shot in my presence at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just acknowledged his victory in the California primary. “On to Chicago and let’s win there!” were his last public words, referring to the Democratic Party’s convention that would nominate a presidential candidate. “He’s the next President Kennedy!” said the woman standing next to me. She then fell to the floor with a bullet wound to the head. (She lived.)
I had been travelling with Kennedy through California’s vineyards, along unsurfaced roads joined together by power lines sagging almost to porch level, and strewn with the wrecks of Detroit’s fantasies. Here, Latino workers vomited from the effects of pesticide and the candidate promised them that he would “do something”. I asked him what he would do. “In your speeches,” I said, “it’s the one thing that doesn’t come through.” He looked puzzled. “Well, it’s based on a faith in this country… I want America to go back to what she was meant to be, a place where every man has a say in his destiny.”
The same missionary testament, of “faith” in America’s myths and power, has been spoken by every presidential candidate in memory, more so by Democrats, who start more wars than Republicans. The assassinated Kennedys exemplified this. John F Kennedy referred incessantly to “America’s mission in the world” even while affirming it with a secret invasion of Vietnam that caused the deaths of more than two million people. Robert Kennedy had made his name as a ruthless counsel for Senator Joe McCarthy on his witch-hunting committee investigating “un-American activities”. The younger Kennedy so admired the infamous McCarthy that he went out of his way to attend his funeral. As attorney general, he backed his brother’s atrocious war and when John F Kennedy was assassinated, he used his name to win election as a junior senator for New York. By the spring of 1968, he was fixed in the public mind as a carpet-bagger.
As a witness to such times and events, I am always struck by self-serving attempts at revising them. The extract from Chancellor Gordon Brown’s book Courage: eight portraits that appeared in the New Statesman of 30 April is a prime example. According to the prime-minister-to-be, Kennedy stood at the pinnacle of “morality”, a man “moved to anger and action mostly by injustice, by wasted lives and opportunity denied, by human suffering. [His were] the politics of moral uplift and exhortation.” Moreover, his “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence”.
In truth, Robert Kennedy was known in the United States for his lack of moral courage. Only when Senator Eugene McCarthy led his principled “children’s crusade” against the war in Vietnam early in 1968 did Kennedy change his basically pro-war stand. Like Hillary Clinton on Iraq today, he was an opportunist par excellence. Travelling with him, I would hear him borrow from Martin Luther King one day, then use the racist law-and-order code the next.
No wonder his “legacy” appeals to the Washington-besotted Brown, who has sought and failed to present himself as a politician with enduring moral roots, while pursuing an immoral agenda that has privatised precious public services by stealth and bankrolled a lawless invasion that has left perhaps a million people dead. As if to top this, he wants to spend billions on a Trident nuclear weapon.
Moral courage, Brown wrote of his hero, no doubt seeking to be associated with him, “is the one essential quality for those who seek to change a world that yields only grudgingly and often reluctantly to change”.
A man with Blair as his literal partner in crime could not have put it better. All the world is wrong, bar them and their acolytes. “I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will [walk down] the road history has marked for us… building a new world society…”. That was Robert Kennedy, quoted by Brown, celebrating a notion of empire whose long trail of blood will surely follow him to Downing Street.