The Kennedy Myth Rises Again

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On 5 June
1968, just after midnight, Robert Kennedy was shot in my presence
at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just acknowledged
his victory in the California primary. "On to Chicago and let’s
win there!" were his last public words, referring to the Democratic
Party’s convention that would nominate a presidential candidate.
"He’s the next President Kennedy!" said the woman standing
next to me. She then fell to the floor with a bullet wound to the
head. (She lived.)

I had been
traveling with Kennedy through California’s vineyards, along unsurfaced
roads joined together by power lines sagging almost to porch level,
and strewn with the wrecks of Detroit’s fantasies. Here, Latino
workers vomited from the effects of pesticide and the candidate
promised them that he would "do something." I asked him
what he would do. "In your speeches," I said, "it’s
the one thing that doesn’t come through." He looked puzzled.
"Well, it’s based on a faith in this country . . . I want America
to go back to what she was meant to be, a place where every man
has a say in his destiny."

The same missionary
testament, of "faith" in America’s myths and power, has
been spoken by every presidential candidate in memory, more so by
Democrats, who start more wars than Republicans. The assassinated
Kennedys exemplified this. John F. Kennedy referred incessantly
to "America’s mission in the world" even while affirming
it with a secret invasion of Vietnam that caused the deaths of more
than two million people. Robert Kennedy had made his name as a ruthless
counsel for Senator Joe McCarthy on his witch-hunting committee
investigating "un-American activities." The younger Kennedy
so admired the infamous McCarthy that he went out of his way to
attend his funeral. As attorney general, he backed his brother’s
atrocious war and when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he used
his name to win election as a junior senator for New York. By the
spring of 1968 he was fixed in the public mind as a carpetbagger.

As a witness
to such times and events, I am always struck by self-serving attempts
at revising them. The extract from British and prime minister-in-waiting
Chancellor Gordon Brown’s book Courage:
Eight Portraits
that appeared in the New Statesman
of 30 April is a prime example. According to the prime-minister-to-be,
Kennedy stood at the pinnacle of "morality," a man "moved
to anger and action mostly by injustice, by wasted lives and opportunity
denied, by human suffering. [His were] the politics of moral uplift
and exhortation." Moreover, his "moral courage is a rarer
commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence."

In truth, Robert
Kennedy was known in the United States for his lack of moral courage.
Only when Senator Eugene McCarthy led his principled "children’s
crusade" against the war in Vietnam early in 1968 did Kennedy
change his basically pro-war stand. Like Hillary Clinton on Iraq
today, he was an opportunist par excellence. Traveling with him,
I would hear him borrow from Martin Luther King one day, then use
the racist law-and-order code the next.

No wonder his
"legacy" appeals to the Washington-besotted Brown, who
has sought and failed to present himself as a politician with enduring
moral roots, while pursuing an immoral agenda that has privatized
precious public services by stealth and bankrolled a lawless invasion
that has left perhaps a million people dead. As if to top this,
he wants to spend billions on a Trident nuclear weapon.

Moral courage,
Brown wrote of his hero, no doubt seeking to be associated with
him, "is the one essential quality for those who seek to change
a world that yields only grudgingly and often reluctantly to change."

A man with
Blair as his literal partner in crime could not have put it better.
All the world is wrong, bar them and their acolytes. "I believe
that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral
conflict will [walk down] the road history has marked for us . .
. building a new world society . . ." That was Robert Kennedy,
quoted by Brown, celebrating a notion of empire whose long trail
of blood will surely follow him to Downing Street.

11, 2007

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2007

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