By C.J. JANOVY
During a political summer leading up to a Democratic National Convention starring a charismatic young newcomer, it’s no surprise that a book about Bobby Kennedy’s short-lived 1968 presidential campaign is climbing the bestseller lists. Others might be interested in Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America because Barack Obama reminds them of Bobby Kennedy. But for those who live around here – and those of us too young to remember – what’s striking about Clarke’s book is realizing that Kennedy’s historic campaign kicked off in Kansas.
A nervous and hesitant Kennedy, not known for his public speaking skills, flew into Kansas City’s downtown airport on March 17, 1968. He continued to Kansas State University, where he’d already been booked to give a lecture. That speech, which Kennedy titled “Conflict in Vietnam and at Home,” changed everything.
For one thing, Kennedy was remarkably honest. And for those reading the book today, what’s sad is how so much of what he said still applies.
“For with all we have done, with all our immense power and richness, our problems seem to grow not less, but greater,” he said. “We are in a time of unprecedented turbulence, of danger and questioning. It is at its root a question of the national soul. The President calls it ‘restlessness’; while cabinet officers and commentators tell us that America is deep in a malaise of the spirit – discouraging initiative, paralyzing will and action, dividing Americans from one another by their age, their views, and the color of their skins.”
And later: “All this – questioning and uncertainty at home, divisive war abroad – has led us to a deep crisis of confidence: in our leadership, in each other, and in our very self as a nation.”
As Clarke recaps the crowd’s reaction:
At first he seemed tentative and wooden, stammering and repeating himself, too nervous to punctuate his sentences with gestures. But with each round of applause he became more animated. Soon he was pounding the lectern with his right fist, and shouting out his words.
Rene Carpenter watched the students in the front rows. Their faces shone, and they opened their mouths in unison, shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
Hays Gorey, of Time, called the electricity between Kennedy and the K.S.U. students “real and rare”.… Kevin Rochat was close to weeping because Kennedy was so direct and honest. He kept telling himself, My God! He’s saying exactly what I’ve been thinking!
Jim Slattery, who would later be elected to Congress from Kansas, reread the K.S.U. speech during the second Iraq war and decided it was so powerful” because Kennedy was talking about what was right!”
Yesterday, Slattery spoke with The Pitch from the campaign trail. After a few years away from Congress, he’s making a run for Republican Pat Roberts’ Senate seat. At the time of Kennedy’s visit, Slattery was head of the Kennedy for President Club at Washburn University.
“It was the most spectacular political day in Kansas in my lifetime, certainly,” Slattery tells us. “Just the kind of enthusiasm that Bobby generated — it was less than 24 hours. He didn’t arrive in town until 9 or 10 at night, and there were a few thousand people out there to greet him. There was a crowd at the Ramada Inn in downtown Topeka. The next morning at Ahearn (Field House) in Manhattan it was packed to the rafters, a mob scene. While they were here, they added a stop at Allen Field House, and by the time he got to Allen Field House it was packed to the rafters there too. And there were several thousand people outside that Bobby spoke to after speaking inside. It was an incredible day for Bobbie Kennedy in Kansas in 1968.”
Slattery hasn’t read Clarke’s book, but he understands the strange feeling of history coming back around.
“When I made my decision to run for the U.S. Senate, I hadn’t thought about it, but after making my decision I realized that it was 40 years ago that Bobby was making his run for president,” Slattery says. “It’s just ironic, I guess. Bobby Kennedy was an inspiration to me because I saw him as somebody who had the courage to speak the truth to the American people during a very difficult time. I saw him as someone committed to justice in our society — that’s a term people don’t talk about much anymore. But it’s essential to peace in the world, you might say. And Bobby was also a strong advocate for the people who needed assistance from government. He was not afraid to stand up for the low-income people, the unemployed, people who were really struggling to make ends meet. We need that kind of leadership again in this country.”
Obviously, Slattery’s hoping Kansas voters will decide that he’s that kind of leader. The Kennedy-like enthusiasm for Obama won’t hurt him, either. Especially since Slattery looks a lot like a Kennedy himself – a fact he doesn’t deny. “When I had dark hair it was sorta weird almost. Wherever I went people would say that to me. It was a lot more obvious then. Irish, you know. But now that I have white hair I probably don’t.” Actually, yeah, he still does. Not Bobby, though. A skinny Teddy.