Bobby gets it wrong
AMERICA-2 MURRAY KEMPTON
New York—Senator Robert Kennedy leaves the starting-gate lamed. There has been some- thing curiously adolescent about his withdrawal for the last six months; his sudden reappearance as a candidate for President was a continuous endurance of the scene where the adolescent struggles to find a useful answer to the question of why he came home so late. Our inquiries and his replies could-all be summarised in the title of a minor classic about American boyhood: 'Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.'
So he has had to begin by explaining and apologising. It is more than a year since he and Mr Johnson had the famous quarrel at whose conclusion the President is supposed to have said: 'I never want to hear your views on Vietnam again. I never want to see you again.' In all that time, he has invariably said when pressed that he would support Mr Johnson for re-election. No discernible public event has occurred to explain his sudden change of front except for Mr Johnson's failure to obtain more than 49 per cent of the vote in the New Hamp- shire primary.
He begins, then, under the heavy suspicion that he is the sort of man who suddenly appears on the field and shoots the wounded. He has been unable to avoid this cloud of moral onus over the early days of his campaign, and it has borne heavily on his performance. He has not before been a glib man; but he has never been "as halting as the sense of his own moral dis- advantage made him all weekend.
But his own residual scruples, and the moral reservations of detached observers, do not long disable a candidate if there is evidence that he is in the race with a chance. The real doubts concern Senator Kennedy's condition as a tac- tician, and the manner of his assault has not been encouraging. If you set out to shoot the wounded, it would seem elementary to be cer- tain in advance that there is no one healthy left on the field.
Senator Kennedy had wasted a great deal of oapital before he -undertook-this gamble. A year ago, he had immense resources; except for Mr Johnson, nearly every professional Democrat of substance bore him manifest goodwill; alone among visible politicians, he had a real com- mand on the hopes of the -young, and, as his brother's heir, a mounting claim on the memories of the middle-aged. The attrition of this wealth since cannot be measured with any certainty; but certainly he is a candidate who no longer claims automatic adherence against all others. The Senator would seem to commence at a moment when his flame has never been lower on the burner.
And then he cannot really begin to enjoy the putative advantage of his contrast with Mr Johnson until he can overcome the present dis- advantage of his contrast with Senator McCarthy. If Senator McCarthy had attained
30 per cent of the New Hampshire vote, he would have demonstrated Mr Johnson's weak-
ness without suggesting any great strength of his own, and Senator Kennedy might have moved him aside and captured the field of opposition all for himself with no great incon- venience. But a candidate who gets 42 per cent of the vote clearly has more than negative vir- tues: if Senator McCarthy's display had not been as much a threat to Senator Kennedy's future as it obviously was to Mr Johnson's present, Senator Kennedy's entry would not have been so indecorous in its baste.
It seems ridiculous to suggest that Senator McCarthy may be a stronger candidate with defected Democrats than Senator Kennedy is; but it would have been ridiculous three weeks ago to suggest that so lonely, so deliberately self-effacing a candidate could poll almost as many votes in a primary election as the Presi- dent of the United States, and that nearly half as many Republicans would write his name on their primary ballots as wrote in Rockefeller's. What is significant in the post-primary polls is their finding that many of those who voted
for Senator McCarthy did not know he was an opponent of the Vietnam war and that almost half of them still support it. Obviously, in a nation which has been shouted at for three years, the modulation of Senator McCarthy's tone, the wryness of his description of what we are, and the earnestness of his hope that we can be better, all add up to a style which is a relief to a great many people and which suggests that here is a candidate who is very formidable indeed. A lot of the Democrats who vote in primaries are quiet persons long offended by clangorous candidates. Democrats like to vote for gentlemen; Adlai Stevenson's remains a memory not to be rearoused, particularly not by the spectacle of President Kennedy's heir dealing cavalierly with Governor Stevenson's heir.
Senator McCarthy also happens to be a man with a very good opinion of himself indeed; his career has been marked surprisingly often by gestures founded on his resentments; it is clear that if Mr Johnson had not used him so shabbily during the preliminaries to the choosing of his vice-president in 1964 Senator McCarthy might not have developed the low opinion of the President which sent him alone into open opposition.
Given this character, it is difficult to under- stand how Senator Kennedy could have been so incautious as to ask Senator McCarthy to step aside on the very day when his forlorn effort had been so implausibly crowned with success, and so brash as to attempt to seize the stage just when Senator McCarthy could for the first time enjoy the satisfaction of occupy- ing its very centre. Senator Kennedy seems to have done things as badly in private as he did in public. Now he must struggle to redeem him- ,elf, standing next to an enemy who is not merely unforgiving but witty; he can offer no image of himself whose presentation can be delivered free of what could be Senator McCarthy's devastating commentary.
All Senator Kennedy has been able to do, in his present circumstance, is to twist his hands and say that his only hope is that he can co- operate with Senator McCarthy. Slight as is the evidence of his hold on reality, Senator Kennedy cannot make anyone believe that he has com- pletely lost his reason. Until the Kennedy inter- vention, Senator McCarthy had to be judged the favourite over Mr Johnson in the Wisconsin Primary; Senator Kennedy insists that he will do everything to help Senator McCarthy there. But, in reality, he must do everything possible —and only the sneaky is possible—to prevent a clear-cut McCarthy victory in Wisconsin. He would be far better off at this juneture if Mr Johnson carried the state.
- For he and Senator McCarthy will contest the primaries with Mr Johnson in five states.
The President, wounded though he is, has arms and armour left; he can count on the labour unions and those Democrats over fifty who remember Franklin Roosevelt well enough to be faithful to the New Deal even in decay. At worst, he cannot be expected to get less than 40 per cent of the vote in any primary. Senators Kennedy and McCarthy will now have to fight for the rest. For one of them to challenge Mr Johnson's vote, the other must be destroyed. And Senator McCarthy, should he survive in Wisconsin, is a serious contender the rest of the way.
It will do Senator Kennedy very little good. for example, if Mr Johnson gets only 40 per cent of the total Democratic vote in California and he himself gets only 35 per cent; the Presi- dent will still have shown that he has the support of more Democrats than anyone else. Senator Kennedy must prove that there is a cry for him above all others. To hope to do that, he must destroy Senator McCarthy before anything else.
What is odd about his conduct is that the safe thing would have also been the sensible one. Senator McCarthy is not going to win the nomination; the most he could do--and, until now, he had briefly seemed to have a clear chance to do it—would be so to bleed the President as to make it possible for someone else to defeat him at the Democratic convention.
That someone else could only have been Robert Kennedy. His course, then, was to announce that he would oppose Mr Johnson's renomination, that he would contest no pri- maries with Senator McCarthy because to do so would be to divide the opposition, that he would move to deny New York to Mr Johnson by taking its convention votes as its favourite son, and that he would enter primaries in states like Maryland and New Jersey where Senator McCarthy was not a contestant. With such a posture, he would have to be on the ballot in Oregon—where the law requires that anyone discussed as a candidate must be unless he certifies that he does not want the nomination —but he and Senator McCarthy could get
through that in tandem, taking- their loss to President Johnson and emphasising, if it had happened, how they had got more votes be- tween them than he did.
He chose instead this direct confrontation with the President and Senator McCarthy; it is
more useful to judge the consequences of this decision than its wisdom: he can hardly be called back from it now. The first results are essentially negative; no one has moved to him who was not already in the open.
So far then, Senator Kennedy has had to depend on those retainers who served his brother so well in other days. Mr Pierre Salinger and Mr Theodore Sorenson are back; but some- how things do not seem the same. They are a little fly-blown; one of the problems of govern- ments in exile is the damage done their chain- berlains by the process of survival in foreign capitals. Mr Sorenson has been making much of his living from General Motors and Mr Salinger from just about any scrap that was lying about; neither evokes much memory of the field on which he rode with Prince Rupert. You watch them assembling what routiers they can, and there arises the memory of the ravaged, unforgettable face we saw in November of 1963, and the thought that we may very well see it again if Senator Kennedy runs third in the California primary. As of now, nothing in his interior condition or his exterior prospects suggests that this is inconceivable.
There is a cruel epitaph you hope on events like these. It is Marx's: 'Hegel remarks some- 'where that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.'