Family, pals, lady friends, employers, political clients: nobody knew. The sole exception was my dad who wanted to know what I was doing in Washington, D.C. I knew he could keep a secret, and he did.
In the 1960's I worked for the President´s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency. Robert Kennedy was the chairman. If you could meet him, I think your first impressions would likely be the same as mine.
The first time I saw him, he was casually sitting in a chair in a large, almost vacant room. My instant impression: I...no...yeah...it´s him, all right. A second instant impression instantly followed: college student. RFK was in his late 30s, but you didn´t notice it until you got up close. He had a halo of youth. Energy, too.
He played touch football.
I stared at him -- and he stared right back. RFK gave you the feeling that, for him, the entire world disappeared except for you and what you were saying. I have never experienced such total, absolute concentration by anybody before or since. Was it the source of his charisma?
We all have unconscious traits that we project outward. Those traits are positive ("The Dream Woman") as well as negative. To wit: we all have "The Shadow," a collection of negative characteristics -- we lie, cheat, steal --, which we do not wish to acknowledge and therefore project onto other people.
The outside person, however, must have a "hook" that ignites the unconscious feelings and causes that person to become their depository. RFK´s hook, I believe, was his total concentration on you: it could not help but flatter your ego. I doubt he was aware of what was happening -- the process of projection is unconscious. It was just the way he was, how he interacted with people. Such things are born, not manufactured.
Beside youth and energy, RFK radiated something else:
The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu cataloged and analyzed ( La Distinction) the tastes of the different socio-economic classes in France. Music, TV programs, art, furniture, food -- nothing was spared; he could walk into your living room, look at the walls and tell you where you came from. Bourdieu nailed the identifying characteristic of the aristocracy: ease. A member of the American oligarchy, RFK was, above everything else, easy going. I guess his mother, Rose, was at the heart of it.
Believe it or not, once upon a time there were wealthy people who cared about their country and wanted to serve it. They had an innate sense of justice and injustice, in particular a smoldering rage about poverty. The Roosevelts and the Kennedys are the most notable cases. Both families were accused of being "traitors to their class." No such charge can be made against the ill-at-ease American oligarchics of today. They take the money and run. Romney included.
There is no doubt in my mind that if RFK had not been assassinated June 6, 1968, he would have won the presidency. He had managed JFK´s presidential campaign and had all the contacts plus experience that went with it. Keep in mind, too, the eventual winner of the presidency that year was Richard Nixon. The rest is history -- or anti-history.
I also have no doubt that had RFK won the White House we would be looking at a different presidency today. Maybe a different country. I say that based on my experience with the President´s Committee...
The staff was all federal employees; none were bureaucrats. They knew what they were supposed to do and did it. I don´t recall anybody, ever, talking about RFK; they didn´t have to. HIs presence was all over the place. He was The Absent Host. He inspired not so much by what he did, but by who he was. He cared. For all you employers and bosses out there, RFK made everybody work harder by making them like what they were doing. Easy, isn´t it? Or is it...
I had two reasons for keeping this matter secret for almost 50 years:
First, I did not want to be known as "the man who worked for Robert Kennedy." I do not deserve either the adulation by many or the contempt of a few that goes with that categorization. I was right, though, about the power the label carries; old friends are already looking at me differently. There´s nothing I can do about it and don´t try. At this stage of my life I can handle it -- unlike before.
The second reason I never talked about it: when I look around at what is happening in the world, especially Washington, it makes me heartsick to think of RFK. A short but not so sweet case in point:
During the Cuban missle crisis in Ocrober 1962, RFK argued against other presidential advisors who were recommending an air strike against missiles in Cuba:
"It would be very, very difficult indeed for the President if the decision were to be for an air strike, with all the memory of Pearl Harbor and with all the implications this would have for us in whatever world there would be afterward. For 175 years we had not been that kind of country. A sneak attack was not in our traditions. Thousands of Cubans would be killed without warning, and a lot of Russians too. He favored action, to make known unmistakably the seriousness of United States determination to get the missiles out of Cuba, but he thought the action should allow the Soviets some room for maneuver to pull back from their over-extended position in Cuba." (For a full account, see RFK´s book, Thirteen Days).
A sneak attack was not in our traditions. Compare the moral and historical concerns of RFK to the Obama drone attacks taking place now in Pakistan and elsewhere, attacks which violate the sovereigny of other nations and which killed two American citizens without according them constitutionally-required due process. It is not surprising that Obama is prey to phony, Hamlet-style angst ("Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?") -- phony, because Obama always goes ahead and does what was going to do anyway: push the button.
RFK: just one more step...
What truly could have been and in fact almost was.
Let´s change the subject.
* * *
Dayton, Ohio. Winter of 1968. President Lyndon Johnson was going around the country preparing his reelection bid. The setting was strikingly appropriate: a horserace track.
I don´t know how he got from Point A to Point B, but suddenly there he was, walking toward the podium. I thought: That guy is HHHUUUGGGE. He must have been 6´5”. Apart from his height, the most impressive thing about LBJ was his hair. Bureaucratic gray; he exuded Washington, D.C. No hint anywhere of the rural Texas school teacher he once was.
We students hated LBJ. The Viet Nam War was raging, and we regarded him as a war criminal. When he got to his subject, “The Future of Youth in America,” I heard a rustle behind me. Protestors raised a gigantic banner with words written in blood-red letters: GET OUT OF VIET NAM, MURDERER!
I was only about 30 feet from LBJ. He, too, heard the rustle. He looked up from his notes. I will never forget his response made to someone unseen in the sky: “Protest…yes, we have the right to protest. That´s why our men are in Viet Nam, to protect the right to protest. Our soldiers…we must protect them, help them protect us. And that´s why you can´t protest…in order to protect the men who are protecting... the…right to…” He checked himself, looked down at his notes, picked up where he left off.
Frankly, I had come to the conclusion that all our demonstrations were a waste of time, that LBJ and his administration were isolated and impervious. My opinion totally changed in the course of three seconds of his incoherent rant. I thought: My god! We´re getting to the old boy. Time to step on the gas!
We didn´t go far. On March 31, 1968, LBJ announced he was not running for re-election. I was in a room with about 100 other students watching TV. I still remember the explosion of joy his words released. Little did we suspect what were in for...
Physically, LBJ was an imposing man. Mentally, a nothing. Which is why, today, nothing is said about him. The last time I saw Johnson´s name in the paper was in 2007 when his widow, Lady Bird, died.
* * *
Fall 1974. Jimmy Carter was touring the country collecting chits for his 1976 presidential campaign and putting together his campaign staff.
I was on the staff of a gubernatorial campaign for which I conducted polls, precinct analyses and studies of the voting records of the two candidates when they were state senators. We held a fund-raising dinner, $25 per head, at which Carter was the guest speaker. The place was packed.
The next day Carter visited our headquarters. Being from the South, I knew who he was and had a favorable impression: he was the governor who had reformed state government in Georgia.
I saw Carter coming down the hall. I was surprised by his height; he was much shorter than I had imagined. The most distinguishing thing about him was his facial complexion: deep, deep red. I thought: He looks exactly like what he is: a peanut farmer.
I guess the campaign manager has talked to him. Carter pulled me into an empty room. His tone and look were no-nonsense. He definitely has executive genes. He cut right to the quick:
“What are you doing after the campaign?” he asked. He indicated he needed a pollster.
I told him all my forces were concentrated on the campaign at hand. My candidate had indicated he wanted me to work on his gubernatorial staff, so, well, “there you have it.” What I did not tell Carter: I had lived 6 months in D.C. and didn´t want to go back, not even for a White House position.
Carter smiled with compassion, shook my hand. We parted.
Going back to my office, I thought: Down-to-earth guy. Born organizer. A very decent man.
* * *
Early 1980s. Vice President George Bush (Senior) came to town. The Republicans were trying to recrute me to work on a U.S. House of Representative reapportionment plan. They gave me an invitation to a cocktail party.
To the contrary of Carter, Bush is much taller than he looks on TV – 6´2”, maybe. Great suit, I thought. Unlike other politicos, he did not work the room, compulsively shaking hands He looked reserved, almost shy, uncomfortable about where he was and what he was doing. Totally contrary to RFK, Bush´s thoughts were someplace else. He was unapproachable, and I did not approach him.
* * *
In 1974, Jimmy Carter was not the only Southern politician touring the country preparing the ground for a presidential race. George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, was hitting the pavement.
“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace was not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, at the request of the head of the Democrat Party, I payed a courtesy call at his hotel.
Like Carter, Wallace was a short man. An assassination attempt in 1972 had put him in a wheelchair. During our conversation somehow the incident of 1963 came up: he had gained national prominence by standing on the steps of the University of Alabama, trying to stop the entrance of the first Black students. I asked him about it.
With his body he adroitly deflected the question. He told me what he had said before. “That was then, this is now. I made a mistake, and I am truly sorry.” As far as I am concerned, a mistake acknowledged is a mistake erased. ´nuff said.
My first impression of Wallace is my last: Pain. His face reflected incredible, mind-boggling pain. It didn´t show on TV. I figured it came from the assassination attempt. I thought: My god – this man isn´t going to be able to take on a nationwide campaign. No way.
Wallace entered the presidential race in 1975, lost heavily in the Democratic primaries. He quit in June 1976 and endorsed Carter.
Excruciating pain. Scrappy. Executive type of guy. Hardball.
* * *
1982. President Ronald Reagan came to our state to assist a GOP senator in his bid for re-election. The GOPs had given me another (see above) invitation to a private cocktail party.
I was in The Big City working as an expert witness in a federal reapportionment lawsuit. I spent the entire morning and part of the afternoon consulting with our legal team. I got in my car and…
I looked at a huge building three blocks away. President Reagan was there all right, no doubt about it. Huge paramilitary vans with tinted windows lined the streets. Armed men on the rooftops. Streets blocked off. Police everywhere.
The cocktail party would take up the rest of the day. There was a pile of legal papers, mostly supreme court decisions, on the seat beside me. I had to make a choice.
I kept driving.
I adjusted the rearview mirror, looked a last time at the building. Let´s see now…A political consultant who has the opportunity to meet a sitting president and passes it up.
A career change was calling.