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Beto and the Ghost of RFK

You can't really understand Beto O'Rourke's campaign without understanding Bobby Kennedy.
April 8, 2019
Beto and the Ghost of RFK
(Photo: GettyImages)

The comparisons have a wistful imprecision—somehow, Beto O’Rourke evokes something of Robert Kennedy: a passing physical resemblance or, perhaps, the whisper of dormant hope, a sense of authenticity in motion.

“I see a little Bobby Kennedy in him,” veteran GOP strategist Scott Reed observes. Watching O’Rourke campaign for the Senate, a woman remarked: “I’m old enough to remember, and he reminds me of Bobby Kennedy. You can look at him and tell he means what he says.”

O’Rourke feels it, too: “There was something punk rock about Bobby Kennedy not going where the pollsters said or where the consultants said. He was unmoored from what was safe or easy.”

That seems to be the spirit of his presidential run. A commentator observed: “If the knock on O’Rourke was that he embodied a wistful writer’s ideal of how a campaign should look, he has answered that by embracing it.” One is reminded of what a journalistic eminence said after interviewing RFK: “God, he’s not a politician! He’s a character in a novel!”

Yet 50-plus years after his assassination, Kennedy the man is shrouded in myth. For me, this quasi-resurrection is particularly poignant. I was 21 when Kennedy died, a few days fresh from college. He was, and remains, the central figure in my political consciousness.

Though I never met him, Kennedy was a vital, living presence in the tumultuous America of 1968. After I became a novelist, I got to know the late Jack Newfield, Bobby’s friend and chronicler—and grew to understand more vividly what it must have been like to know the real man.

Thus I grasped from the beginning that one of my most popular fictional characters, an American president, represented my desire to complete RFK’s journey. He was not just a character in a figurative novel, but in mine.

So I well understand the instinct to see him in Beto O’Rourke. But commentary requires a colder eye. Given that, I sought out two men who were central to Kennedy’s last campaign—the chaotic, wondrous, emotional and ultimately tragic quest which ended in Los Angeles: Jeff Greenfield and Peter Edelman.

In short, they weren’t having it. Edelman wrote: “Basically, Beto looks a little like RFK and is named Robert Francis. That’s it. We really don’t know anything of substance about him. . . . Maybe Beto has something special but we don’t know yet.”

Fair enough. Like every human being, Robert Kennedy was unique—but more so.

We know, for example, that the young O’Rourke went through some tough passages: He had a difficult relationship with a demanding father, a local politician in El Paso. His prep school experience was marked by a profound feeling of alienation from his preppy southern peers. He spent a few wilderness years sorting himself out in New York City. All this is interesting, and potentially important—therein may lie the seeds of originality, the sensibility of a questioning outsider.

But RFK’s life was a psychic boot camp. He was the runt in a scrum of competitive brothers and sisters molded by a demanding and judgmental patriarch, who squeezed the most out of his physical and intellectual gifts just to keep up. O’Rourke lost his father to an accident. Bobby lost one brother to war, another to assassination, and a sister to a plane crash. At his father’s direction, a second behaviorally-challenged sister was lobotomized.

All this made him a tougher man. As an adult, he held the levers of power and used them without flinching. He was competitive and demanding—and, critics said, “ruthless”. Yet there is common agreement that JFK’s assassination made him far more complex and reflective, at times palpably gentle. Contemporaries saw a sadness which went bone deep—in photographs, his default expression is often melancholy.

In Greenfield’s estimate, Kennedy knew more about the darker side of American life than any public figure we can name—from the inner city to impoverished rural outposts to migrant worker camps to organized crime. He was a man without innocence, Greenfield says, who could speak of racial reconciliation with no trace of naïveté.

When he died, at 42, he was four years younger than O’Rourke is now. Yet he had been a public figure for 15 years—as a Senate investigator, his brother Jack’s campaign manager, attorney general, and senator. He was critical in resolving the Cuban missile crisis, and in JFK’s belated support for civil rights.

Then, at terrible cost, he became the protagonist of a restoration narrative—with his brother’s successor Lyndon Johnson, a man he despised and who despised him, cast as his antagonist. But Kennedy had a larger meaning. Uniquely, he embodied the hopes of blue-collar America, minorities and the poor. In his final days of campaigning in Los Angeles, frenzied crowds of supporters from all races mobbed his open car. He was beloved and reviled beyond easy imagining.

One reason he aroused such complex feelings was that, as a politician, he combined pragmatism, idealism, and an instinctive resistance to pandering. Faced with a South African audience who found biblical support for apartheid, he asked: “What if God is black?”

Campaigning for president, he was confronted by a room full of comfortable white medical students. When they asked where he planned to get money to provide more healthcare for the poor, he snapped “From you.” Noting the absence of minorities in the crowd, he added “You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam.” Then he challenged them to do more to lessen the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged.

Kennedy, Newfield wrote,” had an existential dimension. He defined and created himself in action, and learned almost everything by experience. His end was always unknown. . . . He had the capacity to trust his instincts and become authentic. He was always in a state of becoming.”

Over time, RFK moved from certainty to doubt, from a kind of moralistic conservatism to champion of the dispossessed. Because he had no fixed ideology, he forged his political consciousness out of what he saw and felt in the impoverished rural South and the urban ghettos. He learned by looking into faces.

A friend once remarked: “I think Bobby knows precisely what it feels like to be a very old woman.” Civil rights leader Charles Evers described showing Kennedy the poverty and hunger of blacks in rural Mississippi: “[We] went into some homes. He sat there on the side of the bed in an old broken-down building. Tears were running down his cheeks. I knew he cared. I just see them sitting there and crying. The man had no vanity.”

Like him or not, Robert Kennedy didn’t really resemble anyone else. Then or now. Says Greenfield “It’s unfair in a sense to ask Beto, or most anyone else, to come to a presidential campaign with this unique blend—the sense of the tragic and the possibility of something better. . . . Not to mention the unique experience of RFK in being at the center of power, then being suddenly, violently, expelled from that perch. Let Beto demonstrate his own strengths—and weaknesses.”

That’s surely just. Still, we can look at O’Rourke, and see what it is that makes people think he carries the promise of something more—and maybe even the see the ghost of RFK.

No doubt central aspects of the O’Rourke persona would bewilder Robert Kennedy. Bobby was reticent, often awkward at small talk, and fundamentally private. O’Rourke is at ease with himself—so much so that his incessant live-streaming breaks down more walls than some people like, and Kennedy could have imagined. He’s a creature of social media, and of his times. No one photographed Robert Kennedy in his dentists chair.

But one sees overlays—some superficial, others more significant. Kennedy was easily bored; so, it seems, is O’Rourke. Kennedy was an action junkie, climbing mountains and shooting rapids as if to out run his own mortality. O’Rourke, too, thrives on physical activity.

O’Rourke is a thoughtful reader; after JFK’s death, Bobby became one. Kennedy was a sharp questioner; O’Rourke seems intensely curious. RFK’s humor ranged from whimsical to wry; so does O’Rourke’s. RFK could laugh at himself and his circumstances; O’Rourke can, too. As campaigners, both demonstrate a restless energy which invigorates crowds.

Like Kennedy, O’Rourke seems to define himself through action and interaction. “What I like about Beto,” says Texas liberal Jim Hightower, “is he is a work in progress. He is trying to learn what America . . . should be and do, not just in terms of particular policies but in terms of values.”

On the stump, O’Rourke is receptive to new ideas, often thinking them through aloud without fear of the political consequences. As Congresswoman Kathleen Rice says, O’Rourke is “a substantive guy—but the thing that sets him apart is that he listens to people.”

“I have a ton to learn” O’Rourke told reporters. “I also want to be real clear when I made a mistake or when I could do something better. I think that’s the only way to improve.”

After a labor leader told him that “one job should be enough,” O’Rourke made it part of his call for raising the minimum-wage—duly assigning credit.

This unusual openness creates an emotional bond between O’Rourke and voters. “I think that’s the beauty of elections,” he says.” You can’t hide from who you are. The more honestly and directly you communicate to people why you’re doing this, the way in which you want to serve them . . . the more informed decision that they can make.” Of Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, he remarks: “She doesn’t seem to be afraid of making a mistake, or not saying it perfectly, and in the process . . . she’s freed herself from fear.”

By choice, O’Rourke is running as an actual human being—a feat well beyond the capacity of many politicians. The originality of his campaign lies in his insistence on telling the truth as he sees it, or discovers it. “This is an artist at work,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York. “[W]e haven’t seen it before, and it’s exciting. . . . He’s an emotionally-bound candidate following his heart. He’s the least calculating person in the race.”

It helps that O’Rourke the guy is more interesting than most. He comes from bicultural El Paso; speaks fluent Spanish; went to Columbia University; worked some itinerant jobs; played in a punk rock band; started his own business. He took his future wife on a blind date to visit the bar in Mexico that invented the margarita. For those wary of candidates who never put a foot wrong on the meritocratic treadmill—or questioned why they were on it in the first place—he’s refreshingly unconventional, a man with a genuine inner life who values spontaneity and seeks new experience.

Robert Kennedy spoke out unequivocally for social justice. So does O’Rourke. On immigration reform, no one is more progressive—or emphatic. Asked at a town hall in Texas whether he disapproved of black athletes kneeling during the national anthem, O’Rourke placed the act squarely in the tradition of African-Americans in the civil rights movement speaking out for justice: “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, any place.”

Agree or not—many don’t—O’ Rourke won’t equivocate. “This country will truly hit its stride,” he insists, “when it reflects . . . the contributions, the genius, and the creativity of everyone. And right now—economically, politically, where power is concentrated, you don’t have that representation.”

As Kennedy did, O’Rourke seeks out those who’ve lived our social problems, like the indefatigable civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson. Of Stevenson, he says, “[H]e reminded me that the root of the word reparations is the word repair and that in order to repair the deep and lasting damage to our country, we first have to confront the facts and the truth . . . and . . . acknowledge the extraordinary suffering and death endured by African Americans and people of color in this country, long after the end of the Civil War.” This is more Bobby-speak than pol-speak.

RFK wanted to remake America as it should be, by whatever means he thought made sense; he was never an ideologue, or a reflexive advocate for top-down solutions. O’Rourke shuns prepackaged litmus tests—like reflexively signing onto the Green New deal, or Medicare-for-all—in favor of finding his own progressive pathways.

As with Kennedy, some on the party’s left distrust O’Rourke. Yet, as the Atlantic reports, he embraces goals widely shared by progressives: “universal healthcare, universal pre-k, higher pay for teachers, debt-free college, strengthening unions, expanding apprenticeships, investing in rural broadband, exploring new technologies to combat climate change, equal pay for women, paid family leave, legalizing marijuana and expunging records of drug convictions, protecting dreamers, and opening a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.”

That seems like it should be enough for most Democrats, and polling suggests that it is. Still, some on the left resent that a comfortable white guy got more attention than candidates of color who also lost statewide races—say, Stacey Abrams. Complains a female consultant: “Not one woman got that kind of coverage.”

O’Rourke agrees: “That’s part of the problem, and I’m a white man. . . . I think it’s just so important that if I were to win . . . my administration looks like this country. It’s the only way I know to meet that challenge.”

O’Rourke presents Democrats with fundamental questions. One is experience—his Congressional record is light on leadership or achievement. Another is how to prioritize race and gender. Still another is whether he’s sufficiently tough and savvy to take down Donald Trump. No one asked these questions when RFK challenged the politically-damaged but still formidable LBJ, a president more protean than Trump ever could be. They are different men, facing different demands, at very different times.

But perhaps the biggest question for O’Rourke is this: Do Democratic progressives want a candidate who is open to change, or someone who has fixed- even rigid – ideas about how to address a host of complex and evolving problems in such divisive times. Take, for instance, the ossified and humorless Bernie Sanders, forever encased in his own immutable ideological righteousness. What, one might ask, is the line between unblinking fidelity to principle, and blinkered self-absorption in one’s cul-de-sac of the mind. Or, with respect to other candidates, between an “evolution” in their thinking, and the facile adoption of slogans and litmus tests with more calculation than thought.

By comparison, O’ Rourke’s campaign feels more a quest, undertaken by a man who is not an intellectual or emotional one-way street. Some may find that unnerving, or think him too youthfully labile for a president. But one of RFK’s favorite quotations was from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” In the same spirit, O’Rourke named his first son Ulysses Francis—or, as he dryly says, “UFO.”

Politics, Robert Kennedy once said, can be “an honorable adventure.” O’Rourke’s ultimate quest, perhaps, is to make it so.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.