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A Subdued RFK Plays to Huge Crowds

By Richard Cotton


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.

But at every rally, he eventually looks out over his audience and placing his thumb outstretched on top of a closed hand, he jabs it at his listeners and says, "I believe we can do better. I believe this election is important."

And he's off into his campaign speech, which lists education, unemployment, and housing as the main problems confronting American society. He repeats again and again his belief in the obligation the more fortunate have to the less fortunate in American society. He constantly quotes numbers and percentages of various minority groups who are ill-housed, ill-fed, and ill-educated, always concluding, "I believe we can do better."

Kennedy has by now developed a fair amount of stage presence and knows how to handle his crowds. He knows he must quiet down his yelling younger enthusiasts and then put down the small number of Goldwater hecklers who inevitably turn up.

For the children he will use one of two techniques. Either he will look at them suddenly and demand, "What did I just say? I'm trying to talk about some of the most important problems we face and you're not even listening." If this doesn't settle them down, he will continue, "You know what my opponent wants? He's for school on Saturday. Do you want that?" As the youngsters settle down, Kennedy launches into his speech anew.

When the booing or jeering from the Goldwaterites threatens to get out of hand, Kennedy raises his hand to stop his partisans from answering in kind. "I think its very nice Barry's supporters are here today. When I started campaigning, there were eighteen of them in the state. Now there are nine of them and they're holding a state convention here today." Amidst the general laughter Kennedy slides back into his routine.

Humor is an important element in Kennedy's speeches, particularly if he senses the crowd becoming bored. In introducing local candidates at the beginning of a rally, Kennedy will quietly observe, "If you cheer loudly, it makes us feel better up here." He ends each list of introductions with: "And for U.S. Senator," and then raises his hand over his head and points down at himself.

One trick which always pleases his audience begins with a typical rhetorical question: "In 1961, President Kennedy offered a bill to aid teachers' salaries and school construction. Do you think Senator Keating was on the floor of the U.S. Senate, voting on that bill?" "No!" the crowd roars back enthusiastically. Kennedy pauses, and then says, "Well, he was. [Another pause to allow the laughter to die away.] But he voted against the bill. If I had been in the United States Senate, I would have been leading the fight for that bill."

Kennedy rarely refers to his opponent except in discussing Keating's position on various pieces of legislation. He does not engage in the dirt throwing Keating has occasionally sunk to, and Kennedy replies to these charges only under the direct questioning of newsmen.

Many of Keating's charges--the mishandling of the sale of General Aniline and of the Valachi hearings--involve Kennedy's conduct as Attorney General. And Kennedy has been personally hurt by these accusations. He is, with at least some justification, fairly proud of his term at the Justice Department, and Keating's charges, most of which are underhanded political trash, have deeply offended him.

Most of the reporters who have followed both candidates are convinced Kennedy will have the satisfaction of defeating his Republican opponent, which ought to soothe the wounds considerably. The outlook was not always so bright for the former Attorney General, however. The turning point of the campaign came about three weeks ago when Keating announced that his polls showed him significantly out in front. While Kennedy's aides feel this may have been true three weeks ago, Keating lost his most valuable asset: the image of the old, experienced community servant fighting a losing battle against a young upstart. Kennedy readily embraces the role of underdog and always rates the campaign a "close, tough contest" when questioned by newsmen. He pooh-poohs the Daily News poll which shows him in front three to two.

Kennedy has run a far more respectable campaign than his brother Edward ran in Massachusetts two years ago to swamp George Cabot Lodge. Robert Kennedy won't overwhelm Kenneth Keating, but he will probably join his younger brother's club this January

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