The Kennedy Campaign
85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy, by Jules Witcover, Putnam.
PERHAPS the journalists who wrote so much of the new politics in 1968 should be forced to examine the meaning of the cliche and apply it to their own manner of approaching news.
While the newspapers and the TV networks in 1968 devoted a great deal of space and time to the daily travels of the major presidential candidates, they virtually ignored the news which was implicit in the other major aspects of the campaigns. Rarely on TV and never in the newspapers were the television campaign commercials, which set the tone for any modern primary or regular national battle, considered. Yet this is the channel through which most voters were reached (outside of the normal news).
All too often the news media ignored the activities of the various campaign organizations. What were the arguments these people used to win votes? What were the issues which helped the voters in New Hampshire make up their minds about Johnson early last March?
These are the types of questions which the press should have been attempting to answer if those who rely on it are to make accurate judgments of what is happening politically in the nation. For too long the national press dealt with Wallace only in order to denigrate him--not seeking to explain why he attracted the type of support that he did. For many weeks following McCarthy's Granite State victory, many columnists continued to say that the vote was based on Johnson's personality rather than on the war. Greater emphasis on non-personality-oriented reportage might have cleared up issues like this. David Broder in the Washington Post was one of the few reporters to do this kind of work and during the fall, the TV networks began to pay attention to the attitudes and issues behind the rhetoric.
JULES WITCOVER'S 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy is unfortunately merely a summary of the traditional reportage. It is exciting to view a presidential campaign from that rat-race of a pressure box--the press bus or plane. The daily wanderings of Robert Kennedy, while fascinating for trivia buffs and future students of the style of American political life in the late 1960's, just aren't of over-riding import when one is trying to understand the nature of that brief and turbulent campaign of last spring. Witcover mentions the commercial TV campaign twice--and then only in passing.
What this long-time journalist for the Newhouse newspaper chain attempted was to write a definitive history of the campaign. In this effort he failed. Not because he didn't gather the facts about the campaign, but because he didn't understand the forces which made 1968 such an abnormal political year. Witcover admires Kennedy's ability to attract students and black support as well as white ethnic votes (Hungarians, Polish-Americans). In his attempt to avoid analysis, however, he leaves all the background threads hanging--unconnected to the facts of the campaign. Thus, Witcover spends 35 pages describing RFK's post-Jan. 31, 1968, re-thinking of his candidacy but he never once mentions the change in graduate school deferments or the gold crisis, or the military heavy-handedness at Khe Sanh, all of which led to a significant change in public opinion during the months of February and March. These helped set the stage for McCarthy's New Hampshire victory and Johnson's withdrawal.
INSTEAD, Witcover spends much of his time talking about the press's reaction to Kennedy and his campaign. The closeness which develops between the working press who follow the candidate continuously, the candidate's staff, and the candidate himself makes for interesting reading.
Witcover captures Kennedy's personality and changing moods extremely well. In a certain sense, however, the details about Sam's Subway (by far the best place in Indianapolis after 10 p.m.) or all seven verses to the "in" press members' witty version of the "Wabash Cannonball" are superfluous.
After Kennedy rescues the sixteenth child from some catastrophe along the campaign route, the trivia and little human interest stories which made such interesting copy for the newspapers last spring become pretty boring. "On the final Sunday, Kennedy spent several hours back in the District of Columbia, which also was to vote the next Tuesday in a direct Kennedy-Humphrey test. The triumphal hour was saddened when a lead car struck the dog of a twelve-year-old girl. As the child stood numbly next to her pet at the sidewalk curb, Kennedy jumped from his car, stroked the animal and consoled the girl," Witcover wrote, "and Ethel ran into the store to phone for help."
DAVID HALBERSTAM'S The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy is strong where Witcover's 85 Days is weak. It is essentially a "mood piece" presenting the milieu in which the events of the campaign took place.
Much of Halberstam's work appeared in Harper's when he was covering the contemporary political scene for the magazine. His analysis of the background of Kennedy's campaign--the alienation over the war and Kennedy's rapport with minority groups--is acute. He understood what was happening and why it was happening better than many of his contemporaries on the campaign trail.
Unfortunately, Halberstam glosses over large parts of the campaign which were extremely important -- Johnson's withdrawal, for instance. He does manage to get outside of the press bus in his limited description of the campaign, though.
Witcover attempted to deal with Kennedy's campaign in the traditional mold of journalist-authors and failed to get at the essence of his subject. Halberstam succeeds in his short mood work. The Harper's contributing editor has learned to deal with the new politics and the changes in campaign style by adapting his style. It is a hopeful sign.