Review of “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America” by Thurston Clarke

The Last Campaign, a mix of commentary about and quotations by Robert F. Kennedy, is a hagiographic account of RFK’s last 82 days that channels the love affair with the Kennedy Family characterizing the Sixties.

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In spite of its star-struck orientation, however, the book is worth reading if the only RFK you know is the “rabid ferret” RFK of the early 1960’s. The contention promulgated in this book is that the Bobby of 1968 was a different man – epiphanized, if you will, by visits to poor families in Cleveland, Mississippi and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. As the campaign progresses, Bobby seems more and more obsessed with ceasing foreign entanglements and investing the money at home, to cure poverty and promote equal rights.

Obviously this is not the same Bobby as the one that served in the JFK and LBJ administrations. But after reading this book, I became convinced that RFK – at the very least – began responding to all the reinforcement he got by being the only white politician to promise help for Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans. I also give him credit for not changing his campaign speeches to pander to his varied audiences, a practice now distressingly common.

How sincere was he? It’s hard to tell from this book. How much of his support was because he was a Kennedy? It sounds like a great deal of it was, even though this author tries hard to establish Bobby as a Saint in his own right.

Robert F. Kennedy is shown touring the Mississippi Delta near Greenville, April 11, 1967, on an anti-poverty investigation.

Robert F. Kennedy is shown touring the Mississippi Delta near Greenville, April 11, 1967, on an anti-poverty investigation.

The Kennedys lived a charmed existence, while they lived. They had the money to live life to the fullest, and to evoke, as Jackie Kennedy observed so aptly, the halcyon days of Camelot. The political reality, however, was not as golden. Histories of the CIA demonstrate that the Kennedy brothers were very much taken by dirty tricks and assassinations; in fact, there is considerable evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was only payback for the many attempts on Castro’s life engineered by Bobby. The Kennedys also did not have a stellar record on Civil Rights; Jack paid political debts by nominating white racists to the Southern judiciary; and Bobby authorized the attempted destruction of Martin Luther King, Jr. by the FBI.

So, did Bobby genuinely do a 360 and become the champion of black Americans? This book doesn’t provide the answer. On the other hand, Bobby’s speeches are masterful, inspiring, and radical by today’s standards. If you can access his speeches in another venue, by all means do so. If not, this book is a start.

Published by Henry Holt and Co., 2008

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