- Historic Sites
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
It was a no-lose situation. Even if Keating agreed to debate, and won, Kennedy could simply go on the air at eight and spin things any way he wanted. As it happened, Keating and his handlers reacted as if they had been poleaxed. His television producer and three studio guards adamantly denied Kennedy access to the studio. While Javits and Keating lambasted an empty chair and a nameplate reading ROBERT F. KENNEDY , news photographers snapped shots of the flesh-and-blood Kennedy staring grimly at a sign on the studio door reading PLEASE KEEP OUT . When the “debate” was finished, Keating ran out of the room, while his campaign workers tossed folding chairs and potted palms in the way of pursuing journalists.
Bobby retired to his studio for his own thirty minutes of airtime, hosted by a professional broadcast commentator. There Kennedy related what had just happened and told viewers with a straight face, “I just don’t believe that’s the kind of politics we want in New York.” Later he joked, “There were Javits and Keating on television really giving it to this empty chair. I’ve never seen either of them better. They kicked that chair all over the room.”
Keating blustered that he had been the victim of “a fraud and a hoax.” He actually bought another hour of television time, three days later, and again challenged Kennedy to debate him. In an object lesson on why politicians need media advisers, Keating spent the whole sixty minutes speaking and taking phone calls while periodically a giant clockface was superimposed on his head, to show that time was running out for Kennedy to appear.
Keating finally did get to debate Bobby Kennedy, from 11:05 to 12:20 that night, on the radio. He spent much of his time —believe it or not—attacking Kennedy on why Bobby hadn’t debated him earlier. Kennedy was generally cordial and conciliatory, using the opportunity to blunt his now-vaunted reputation for ruthlessness. Asked at the end of the night if there would be any more debates, Keating huffed, “That remains to be seen.” “Haven’t we done enough?” Bobby asked happily.
As if fate had not dealt Keating enough hard knocks, a small-time hood known as Murph the Surf broke into New York’s American Museum of Natural History that same night and walked away with the spectacular sapphire known as the Star of India, thereby guaranteeing that the debate would be pushed even further into the back pages of the next day’s newspapers.
“Murph” would eventually be caught. Bobby Kennedy would not. On Election Day he won by nearly 720,000 votes, although Keating could take some cold consolation from the fact that President Johnson’s margin in the state was nearly two million votes more. Ted Kennedy breezed to victory in Massachusetts, and the following January 4 he and Robert were sworn in as the first brothers to serve in the Senate together since 1803.
Whether Hillary and Rudy can come up with so delightfully rambunctious a campaign is questionable, to say the least. Few doubt that they have the ruthless part down, but for all their years of public service neither candidate seems to possess Bobby Kennedy’s gift for self-mockery. Speaking to the Women’s National Press Club the very night he was sworn in, Kennedy pretended to riffle through his notes, telling the audience, “First of all, I want to say how delighted I am to be here representing the great state of … ah … ah. …”
He is still missed.