Those who were adults in the 1960s, or those who learned some history, know that Robert Kennedy took up the mantle of his brother, President John Kennedy, after the latter's assassination. It was not however at all assured that he would run for president in 1968, a time when the United States was deeply involved at the height of the war in Vietnam, when we needed new leadership and vision. The president at that time was Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), and although he led some admirable initiatives domestically against racism and for human rights and the environment, he also led a dishonest and destructive war effort in Vietnam which caused national upheaval in the United States on a scale not seen since.
Pete Hamill was a personal friend of Robert Kennedy, and wrote him the following letter (in italics; additional notes by Pete Hamill follow, below the letter). I present all of this to remind each of us that politics has not always been as dark as it has been for the last eight years. For many of us the political world has been dark since 1968.
After the assassinations of both Kennedys, of Martin Luther King, and even of Malcolm X, it felt as if the dreamers or anyone who even dared to speak of a better way, were being forced into a quiet corner, while those with agendas, with economic interests to protect, with friends in high places, those people took over the United States government and over time wreaked havoc with our economies and our dreams of a better America. Purely materialistic manipulations can never lead a country along the road of principles and national character. Without the pursuit of a higher vision, a country is subject to falling into the various traps of corruption, divisiveness, and the violent resistance to those abuses.
Although Al Gore captured a bit of the positive energy that so many remembered and envision, it is in this election in 2008 that there seems to be the first return of that energy, the positive energy that was part of the atmosphere in the 1960s, that was mixed with the sadness and anger over wars and assassinations against which so many fought. Whether Barack Obama merits the wide optimism he has aroused has not yet been proven, but he gives the signs of the intelligence and character that at least give the chance of a different kind of leadership.
We do recognize that the next president, whomever he is, will have many obstacles and challenges, and we will all need to work together. But through all that, we should not forget the idealistic vision of government as a force for good, and the vision of the USA as a benevolent influence in the world.
So, without further delay, here is Pete Hamill's letter to Robert Kennedy, and some additional words by Hamill:
I had wanted to write you a long letter explaining my reasons for why I thought you should make a run for the Presidency this year. But that's too late. I read in the Irish Times this a.m. that you had made a hard announcement, and that small hope is gone, along with others that have vanished in the last four years.
I suspect that all nations have their historical moment, some moment when it all seems to have been put together as an idea: our moment was 1960–63. I don't think it's nostalgia working or romanticism. I think most Americans feel that way now.
The moment is gone now, and we have grown accustomed to living in a country where nobody would protest very much if Jack Valenti replaced John Gardner.
I wanted to say that the fight you might make would be the fight of honor … I wanted to say that you should run because if you won, the country might be saved … If we have LBJ for another four years, there won't be much of a country left. I've heard the arguments about the practical politics which are involved. You will destroy the Democratic Party, you will destroy yourself. I say that if you don't run, you might destroy the Democratic Party; it will end up nationally, the way it has in New York, a party filled with decrepit old bastards like Abe Beame, and young hustlers, with blue hair, trying to get their hands on highway contracts, It will be a party that says to millions and millions of people that they don't count, that the decision of 2,000 hack pols does. They will say that idealism is a cynical joke; that hard-headed pragmatism is the rule, even if the pragmatists rule in the style of Bonnie and Clyde.
I wanted to remind you that in Watts I didn't see pictures of Malcolm X or Ron Karenga on the walls. I saw pictures of JFK. That is your capital in the most cynical sense; it is your obligation in another, the obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls. I don't think we can afford five summers of blood. I do know this: if a 15-year-old kid is given a choice between Rap Brown and RFK, he might choose the way of sanity. It's only a possibility, but at least there is that chance. Give that same kid a choice between Rap Brown and LBJ, and he'll probably reach for his revolver.
Again, forgive the tone of this letter, Bob. But it's not about five cent cigars and chickens in every pot. It's about the country. I don't want to sound like someone telling someone that he should mount the white horse; or that he should destroy his career. I also realize that if you had decided to run, you would face some filthy politics, and that there are plenty of people in the country who resent or dislike you.
With all of that, I still think the move would have been worth making, and I'm sorry you decided not to make it.
I learned later, from Newfield and others, that my letter had been placed intentionally on top of a pile of unread mail by Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy's press secretary. He wanted Bob to read it first. Apparently, he was moved and disturbed. For weeks, he carried it around in his briefcase, showed it to others, including those who didn't want him to run (former Jack Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen and the president's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, among others). I knew nothing of this. I kept writing my novel, often with my daughter Deirdre on my shoulder or my lap as I typed the manuscript. I finished the draft on March 13. It was a thriller about a plot to assassinate the pope.
The next day I received a telegram from Bob Kennedy. He was taking my advice, he said. He wanted me to come home and join his campaign.