Features and Columns

Online Edition Friday June 13, 2008
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Michael Miller


I keep hearing and reading that Senator Obama's ability to generate enthusiasm in a crowd reminds many of President Kennedy. But while JFK had enthusiastic crowds, the rock concert hysterics and all that, that was Robert Kennedy. It was after the assassination that the Kennedy Mystique thing took off, when the 1964 Democratic Convention went insane over RFK and he changed his mind about running for the Senate from New York.

The law said a Senate candidate merely had to be a resident of New York by Election Day, November 3. The last week of August 1964, RFK's brother-in-law and chief New York operative Stephen Smith quietly leased the 10-bedroom house of dress designer Philip Hulitar in Glen Cove's East Island mansion district. Robert Kennedy was a Nassau Democrat when he went to the Senate. He never spent much time in Glen Cove. He kept the children in their Northern Virginia school near his other (real) home, though they did enter a Labor Day swimming competition at the Piping Rock Country Club in Locust Valley. But Glen Cove was his official residence and base of operations that fall. The property could accommodate the chartered jet-helicopter that whisked Kennedy to campaign events. The Glen Cove address paid other dividends. When the Pulaski Memorial Committee denied his campaign's request that he be allowed to march in their September 1964 parade in Manhattan, RFK marched anyway, with members of the Glen Cove unit.

It was at the Glen Cove house that Ethel Kennedy, Mrs. RFK, renewed a campaign tactic that had been a staple in Jack Kennedy's campaigns for Congress in Boston; 450 women from Long Island and New York City, party officials and the wives of prominent Democrats, were bused in for one of the famous Kennedy "teas" (most of the women actually drank coffee). By the end of October, Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the president, also rented an estate in Glen Cove. Later in the year, the Kennedy clan gathered at Jackie's house to celebrate her children's birthdays.

By June 1965, RFK moved his family to a co-op overlooking the East River near the United Nations.

Kennedy's last-minute parachute drop into the New York Democracy left a wide trail of resentment. Some thought that he had hijacked a Senate nomination meant for Congressman Sam Stratton of Schenectady, one of the state's rising political stars. The Americans for Democratic Action, at the time very big medicine in Democratic politics, refused to endorse Kennedy against incumbent Senator Ken Keating, remaining neutral. John Roosevelt, son of Franklin and Eleanor, headed Democrats for Keating and took out large newspaper ads that used the words "arrogance," "rudeness," "ruthlessness" and "bossism" to describe Kennedy and how he was nominated.

It was on Long Island that the crowds officially began getting threatening and even out of control. Early on, Kennedy was trapped in the West Bath House at Jones Beach as a frenzied crowd of over 10,000 swarmed outside. He was more celebrity than politician. For years, Kennedy often seemed ill at ease in front of the crowds, and even some in his inner circle understood that RFK was "not like Jack." But by the end, by the 1968 California Primary, Kennedy was the comfortable, articulate and inspirational speaker that people remember. Practically all of the famous lines, such as the "mindless madness of violence" speech in Indianapolis, came in that 1968 campaign, and mostly toward the end.

I don't think it's right to romanticize famous figures to the point that we rob them of their individuality and their humanness. Contrary to the mythology, by June 1968 there were few remaining scenarios in which RFK would be nominated by the Democratic Party. He said publicly that he had to win in California to keep alive any remaining chance that he could stop Hubert Humphrey.

But that doesn't take away from the poetic, soaring prose that not only sounded good, but challenged Americans on the most difficult, most uncomfortable issues they faced, or had refused to face. Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy had grown to match the myth, the hype, the frenzy. In today's age, where every shot of whiskey and mug of beer makes our leaders seem smaller and smaller, the senator from Glen Cove seems larger and more inspiring than ever.

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