October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
As Hillary Clinton campaigns for a New York Senate seat, she’d do well to study the career of another effective outsider
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.”
Once in, Kennedy moved with what in our present politics would be considered stunning alacrity. He declared for the Senate from New York on August 26, resigned his position as a Massachusetts delegate to the Democratic Convention the same day, and wrapped up the nomination at the New York state convention on September 1. Polls already showed him leading Keating by seventeen points.
But Kenneth Keating was no push-over. Sixty-four years old, a dignified, white-haired veteran of both world wars and a graduate of Harvard Law School, he had served six terms in the House before being persuaded by Nelson Rockefeller to run for the Senate in 1958. Bucking a national Democratic landslide, Keating had scored a 130,000-vote victory over Manhattan’s legendary district attorney Frank Hogan and gone on to establish a solid record in the Senate as a hard worker, a domestic liberal, and a staunch Cold Warrior.
“I welcome Robert Kennedy to New York,” he said when Kennedy announced. “Indeed, as his Senator, I would be happy to furnish him a guidebook, road map, and any other useful literature about the Empire State which any sojourner would find helpful.”
He went on to attack Kennedy’s carpetbagger status at every opportunity, repeatedly pointing out that the candidate would not even be able to vote for himself. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s early moves were tentative and wrong-footed. His courting of the entrenched Democratic leadership had infuriated party reformers still trying to put the last nail in Carmine De Sapio’s Tammany Hall organization. Gore Vidai and Lisa Howard organized a Democrats for Keating Committee, and a host of liberals, including I. F. Stone, James Baldwin, Richard Hofstadter, Paul Newman, Barbara Tuchman, and Nat Hentoff, endorsed the Republican incumbent. Most of the state’s newspapers did likewise. The New York Times mocked Bobby as a “young Lochinvar” and—twisting the knife by using the r-word—deplored “the ruthless swiftness with which he has put together an irresistible personal political machine in this state.”
By early October Kennedy’s own pollster had Keating with a small lead, and Bobby was futilely demanding a debate. But in fact Kenneth Keating was a man fighting on quicksand. His campaign was being slowly but inexorably drawn down by Barry Goldwater’s hijacking of the Republican party. In order to retain his liberal and moderate support, Keating refused to endorse Goldwater—only to have a sixty-one-year-old Clare Boothe Luce—usually a resident of Connecticut—threaten to run for the Senate on the Conservative party line if Keating did not back the Republican nominee.
Two carpetbaggers, and a race pitting Robert Kennedy against Clare Boothe Luce? Alas, such treasures are beyond us in this life. Luce eventually desisted, but the GOP’s schism continued to undermine Keating’s campaign, while the prospect of victory was enough to drive even Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy into each other’s arms. Johnson campaigned with Bobby from Buffalo to Brooklyn in two days of frenzied, jubilant motorcades and rallies, squeezing a gamely smiling Kennedy to his chest and telling crowds, “This is ma boy. I want you to elect ma boy.” On October 29 some half-million people gave Kennedy and the vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey a tumultuous reception at Manhattan’s traditional electioneve labor rally in the garment district. A day earlier Keating had appeared before a Wall Street crowd of five hundred, some fifty of whom turned out to be Goldwater diehards who booed the senator and held up placards reading WE WANT BARRY! and SOCIALIST!
Kennedy surged back into a commanding lead by mid-October, and Keating began to make repeated references to his “ruthless” campaign. Now it was the Republican who demanded a debate, and when Kennedy demurred, Keating resorted to an old tactic. He bought half an hour of time on WCBS-TV, for 7:30 P.M. on October 27, and announced that if Kennedy did not show up, Keating and New York’s senior U.S. senator, Jacob Javits, would spend the half-hour “debating” an empty chair.
“Let the man from Massachusetts meet me face to face,” Keating told newsmen. “I’ll pin his ears back.”
Men from Massachusetts are not in the habit of having their ears pinned back, however, and Keating was about to find out just how ruthless Robert Kennedy could be. Kennedy bought thirty minutes of airtime on WCBS himself that night, beginning at 8:00 P.M. Then, at approximately 7:25, he showed up at Keating ’s studio with a phalanx of reporters and announced that he was ready to debate.
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.