A Subdued RFK Plays to Huge Crowds


The Democratic-Liberal candidate for New York's Senatorial seat is mobbed at every campaign stop. Crowds turn out in extraordinarily large numbers for his rallies and tours. Shricks of "I touched him. I touched him" are left in his wake as a dozen policemen wedge him through frenzied mobs. Murmurs of adoration waft after him as he shakes hands through a formal dinner gathering in a hotel ballroom. ("Why didn't you kiss him, Gale?" "Mmm, I would have loved to.") Whispers of suspicion follow his speech to a middle class suburban audience: a man turns to his wife and cautions, "Just remember, that man is after nothing but power."

In the first campaign on his own, Robert or Bobby or Bob Kennedy (his campaign signs use all three) has fulfilled very few of the early expectations of political seers. The smooth Kennedy political touch has been inexplicably absent. Kennedy's very entrance into the race was awkwardly handled. Only after he had been publicly eliminated from vice-Presidential consideration did he make eyes at the New York senatorial nomination. And then he permitted the first public announcements of support to come from the "boss" elements in the New York party.

When candidate Kennedy finally entered the state, it was a distressingly ineffectual speaker and awkward campaigner who appeared. While he improved tremendously during the campaign, Kennedy is still incredibly nervous on television, and his hands tremble noticably even when cameramen corner him in a hotel corridor to film a short newsreel clip.

Perhaps most surprising, the widely-hailed, efficient Kennedy organization which served JFK so well in 1960 and Teddy in 1962 has been amazingly inefficient. For brother-in-law Stephen Smith, Kennedy's campaign manager, has acted like an out-of-stator time after time, contacting the wrong county leader, inviting both reformers and regulars to the same breakfast, and most recently, refusing an invitation to appear before the state League of Women Voters--something no candidate for state-wide office has done since the custom was initiated in 1958.


If bringing in his own team laid him open to charges of carpet bagging, it has been an excellent move in other ways. It seems to be a Kennedy trait to appoint good men, and RFK has come up with some excellent advisors. Many, like him, are Harvard graduates. Many are men who have worked with him or years and whom he has now brought with him from the Justice Department to New York.

The effect of these advisors is evident in Kennedy's campaign. Vaguely reminiscent of Ted Kennedy's 1962 pledge of "I can do more for Massachusetts," the former Attorney General's theme in New York is "we can do better." But unlike his brother's empty sloganeering, Kennedy has made proposal after proposal dealing with state and national problems. He has almost made a fetish out of concrete approaches to problems, repeating constantly "we need fewer speeches, fewer generalities, and more specific solutions."

Kennedy's main issues, the ones he cites in every speech, are education, housing, and unemployment. To contribute to their solution, he favors, with evangelical fervor at times, federal aid to education, federal low-and middle-income housing, and such legislation as the area redevelopment program, accelerated public works, and the manpower retraining act. Of these three primary issues, Kennedy particularly stresses--and speaks most eloquently on--education. His apparent concern for children, and particularly children unfairly handicapped by lack of opportunity, is a prominent feature in all his speeches.

In the drive to propose solutions to problems the Kennedy staff has consulted many professors and other experts. Privately his advisors express surprise--and disgust--at Keating's ridiculing their use of professors and the Senator's denouncement of "Kennedy's $100 million brain trust."

Kennedy's attacks on Keating have been similarly specific. His research staff has done an exhaustive study of Senator Keating's voting record, and Kennedy has attempted to punter what his campaign literature headlines as "The Myth of Keating's Liberalism" by citing various specific votes of the Senator.

In a campaign where both candidates are striving energetically for the label of liberal, Keating has waxed indignant at Kennedy's blanket condemnations of him as completely "against" a policy on the basis of selected votes opposing certain bills. But the debating points go to Kennedy, for even if people accept Keating's protestations that he is not against federal aid to education, the beleaguered Senator is still left to explain why he did not vote for the specific aid to education bill Kennedy has cited--a difficult task to accomplish well from a political platform.

But what has been Kennedy's greatest problem throughout the campaign has been convincing the voter suspicious of a ruthless, power-hungry young politician who has simply chosen New York as a convenient launching pad for his elective career.

He has not wholly succeeded in dispelling the power-hungry image (and Keating has certainly tried to complicate this task). But the ruthlessness has pretty well disappeared from the Kennedy characterization within New York. And it has disappeared because New York has seen a Robert Kennedy who is very reserved, often nervous, often awkward, and who is worshipped and followed by hordes of little children wherever he goes.

The most painful part of Kennedy's campaign routine is the first one or two speeches in his day. The press demands "news" each day, and for Kennedy this usually means a new legislative proposal. While a polished press release is distributed to reporters, the candidate must incorporate the proposal into at least one speech, and this Kennedy consistently does poorly.

He is not a natural orator, and is an effective speaker only when dealing with material he has gone over many times. He rarely uses a prepared text. If he has notes, he rarely follows them, flipping back and forth through them, picking out an idea here and there and presenting them in no particular order. Often he will pick a statistic out of these notes, often pausing to repeat it as much for his own benefit as for his listeners.