Opinion » Arianna Huffington

Cyclical History

John Kerry and Bobby Kennedy's unfinished mission


There is no shortage of comparisons between our current military misadventures and Vietnam. But after watching RFK, David Grubin's powerful new documentary on the life of Robert F. Kennedy set to air on PBS in October, I feel there is a more useful comparison—not of the two wars but of the two eras.

John Kerry has said that he would one day like to write a book entitled simply 1968. And it was impossible to watch "RFK" and not be struck by the many historical parallels between 1968 and today, by how much the legacy of Bobby Kennedy animates John Kerry's run for the White House—and how Kerry is in a unique position to complete Kennedy's unfinished mission of ending a misguided war, returning real compassion to our domestic agenda and bringing us together as a nation.

"As a survivor of RFK's 1968 campaign," historian Arthur Schlesinger told me, "I see John Kerry in the JFK/RFK tradition—a brave, intelligent and thoughtful man. I find many similarities between that campaign and this one, especially our entanglement in a hopeless war at the expense of urgent domestic woes."

In the film, former senator and RFK confidant Harris Wofford says that Kennedy told him that he was running for president "to save the soul of the country."

Kerry has already fueled his campaign with similar aspirations. "America is more than a piece of geography," he said in a speech earlier this month, "more than the name of a country. It is the most powerful idea in human history: freedom and equal opportunity for all ... I am running for president to renew that idea and spirit again."

And not a minute too soon. You know the idea and spirit of America are in desperate need of renewal when the most stirring rallying cry we can muster these days is, "At least we don't behead people!"

It should go without saying that we're better than that. And the 2004 election is our chance to prove it. A referendum on what kind of America we want to live in.

"People are selfish," Kennedy told speechwriter Richard Goodwin as he agonized over his decision to seek the presidency, "but they can also be compassionate and generous, and they care about the country ... I think people are willing to make the right choice. But they need leadership. They're hungry for leadership."

In 2004, we're downright starving for it. From leaders who capture our imagination and challenge us. Leaders who can transform our country through hope instead of controlling it through fear and division.

John Kerry can be that kind of leader—as he's demonstrated in his recent calls for shared sacrifice and national service. "America needs you on the frontlines," he recently told the graduating class at New Orleans' Southern University, "building a nation that really is one America."

So why then is Kerry still neck-and-neck in the polls with George Bush, whose idea of transformational leadership consists of turning his "base"—very rich people—into even richer people?

The problem is that Kerry is still doling out his vision in drips and dribbles. He has not yet offered the bold narrative that connects the dots—and shows how he's uniquely poised to fulfill the Kennedy legacy.

The irony is that the Kerry narrative is one of the great narratives in the history of American politics—a personal tale that links his life story to the history of our times, to his vision for the renewal of America.

The narrative starts on June 5, 1968—the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated: John Kerry is on board the USS Gridley, returning home from Vietnam. During the last month, Kerry has used the ship's radio to follow Kennedy's remarkable campaign run. But when he tunes in to hear the results of the California primary, the crackling radio delivers the horrifying news that Bobby has been gunned down—news that rocks Kerry to his core.

This marked the beginning of his coming of age as a leader, which culminated three years later with his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With the help of former RFK speechwriter Adam Walinsky, Kerry crafted a compelling, unflinching speech filled with all the moral clarity, fearlessness and boldness our current times demand. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" memorably asked Lt. Kerry—wrenching words just as applicable to today's Iraq as they were to Vietnam in '71.

RFK's influence can also be seen in Kerry's willingness to dream big. His campaign speeches often consciously evoke Bobby's famous challenge to dream things that never were, asking: Why not affordable health care? Why not high-quality public schools? Why not clean air and water?

There is a memorable moment in the PBS documentary when Bobby Kennedy makes one of his first campaign appearances in the Midwest, at the University of Kansas, in front of a jam-packed audience that responds to his call for abandoning "the bankrupt policies we're following at the present" with thunderous cheers.

A photographer for Life magazine traveling with Kennedy can't believe what he's seeing. "This is Kansas, fucking Kansas!" he yells. "He's going all the way!"

Kennedy's ability to move beyond the divisions that were threatening to tear our country apart and reach out to all Americans—black and white, rich and poor, young and old—meant that every place, even a bastion of conservatism like Kansas, was suddenly in play. Every state was a swing state.

If John Kerry offers a bold vision forged by his unique personal narrative to connect with, inspire and empower voters all across the country, he too can catch fire and turn red states blue—winning not in a toss up, but in a landslide.

Arianna Huffington's e-mail address is arianna(AT)ariannaonline.com.

© 2004 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.