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As Hillary Clinton campaigns for a New York Senate seat, she’d do well to study the career of another effective outsider
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
New Yorkers knew they were in for a long, hot summer this year when Hillary Rodham Clinton made an early political foray into their state and was greeted by demonstrators whom the state GOP had urged to dress up as blackflies. One of Mrs. Clinton’s aides had made the mistake of remarking that the First Couple would not be vacationing in the Adirondacks because of the flies. As it turned out, there were no human flies, but her presumed senatorial opponent, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was not about to let the public forget those were New York flies she was talking about. The latest race of the century was on.
Actually, New Yorkers are due for two long summers, thanks to the duration of the modern electoral campaign. The Hillary-Rudy showdown may achieve through endurance alone the epic quality most political commentators are anticipating. Their expectations, though, seem to be founded on the (shall we say) challenging personalities of both Mrs. Clinton and Mayor Giuliani and on Clinton’s rare status as a “carpet-bagger”—one who has embraced that venerable American tradition of packing up your political suitcase and heading where the pickings seem best.
Yet nothing is ever really new under the New York sun. There is already quite a history of carpetbagging, not to mention out-and-out looniness, in races for the very seat that Giuliani and Clinton are contesting and which is now held by the soon-to-retire Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan’s predecessor was that archetypal New Yorker James Buckley, who won the seat in 1970, in a three-way race, on the Conservative-party line. Buckley served one term, lost to Moynihan, and then in 1980 tried to return to the Senate from his more familiar Connecticut. His New York sojourn was effectively used against him by Christopher Dodd, who claimed Buckley thought one senator should have two states, instead of the other way around.
Still, for controversy, comedy, and sheer audacity, no act of carpetbagging is likely to measure up any time soon to what happened when Robert F. Kennedy invaded the Empire State in 1964. The recent death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., has given a new generation of Americans some small idea, perhaps, of the feelings that Bobby Kennedy evoked. During the brief zenith of his career, Robert Kennedy was a sort of combination rock star, saint, and existential hero. His appeal was almost frightening for a democracy, freighted as it was with so many quasi-mystical, inchoate longings: for his murdered brother, for glamour and power, for a restored, reunified America.
In Bobby Kennedy the man and the time were met, and his allure was no doubt in part a legacy of the chaotic 1960s and the murder of his brother. But nearly all successful politicians are blessed with good timing, and it doesn’t explain the nooks and crannies of the man, the way he could serve at one and the same time as a lightning rod and a unifying force. He was fervently hated by some—for his position, his privilege, and his “ruthlessness,” a term that would dog him throughout his political career. Above all, he was imbued with a certain diffident grace unusual in a politician, the ability, affected or not, to imply that he was on to all the contrivances of running for public office, yet could still find something worthy in the effort.
In August of 1964 Kennedy’s star power shone through at the Democratic National Convention. Introducing a filmed tribute to his late brother, he made a short, emotion-laden speech that consisted mostly of his reciting five lines from Romeo and Juliet , but before he could begin he received a teary, ecstatic ovation that went on for sixteen minutes.
Yet at just thirty-eight years of age, Robert Kennedy found himself at something of a vocational dead end. He still held his post as the country’s Attorney General, but his relationship with the new President, Lyndon Johnson, had always been based on mutual loathing, and Johnson had adamantly rejected pleas by the party faithful to make Bobby his Vice President. Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, the only Senate seat up for grabs was the one held by his brother Edward.
The obvious place to go was … New York, and the U.S. Senate seat then held by the Republican Kenneth Keating. Actually, the choice was not so outrageous as it might seem. Robert Kennedy had spent about as much of his peripatetic life at his family’s Riverdale estate as he had in Hyannis Port, Cambridge, various prep schools, the Virginia suburbs, or the Court of St. James’s. Moreover, New York State’s Democratic-party leaders were nearly as demoralized as they are today, desperate for someone to save them from the surging tide of Rockefeller Republicanism. It took no more than a month of phone calls and arm-twisting from Stephen Smith, his sister Jean’s husband, to bring them into line.
“I think I shall respond to the spontaneous draft of my brother-in-law,” Bobby told a journalist, trying to head off the carpetbagger issue with the usual breezy Kennedy wit. Ethel Kennedy suggested “There is only so much you can do for Massachusetts” as a campaign slogan, while the novelist Richard Condon proposed that Bobby end his speeches with “Ich bin ein New Yorker.”