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RFK: The Last Conservative Democrat?

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On May 9, 1968 Sen. Robert F. Kennedy spoke to delegates of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Atlantic City, N.J. He was elected U.S. senator from New York in 1964. In 1968, during his campaign for the presidency, he was assasinated moments after winning the California Democratic primary. (AP)

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Friday, 01 June 2018 11:12 AM Current | Bio | Archive

In October of 1964, when I was twelve years old, I spent an afternoon standing in front of the Smolenski Regular Democratic Club at 145 Java Street, Greenpoint (in Brooklyn, New York) waiting for the arrival of then-U.S. Senate candidate, Robert F. Kennedy.

I was one of thousands lining the streets of our Catholic working-class neighborhood, hoping to get a glimpse of the slain president’s brother. But that day I was luckier than most. As R.F.K.’s convertible Cadillac pulled up in front of the clubhouse, he reached out and shook my hand.

Why did working-class Catholic’s flock to support Robert Kennedy?

First and foremost, he was Catholic.

Second, we believed RFK was different from post-World War II condescending Democrats who, political analyst Michael Barone observed, were "critics rather than celebrators of middle-class culture" and "judge[d] ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and [found]them wanting."

We believed he understood us — especially culturally.

Bobby Kennedy was not always a champion of the common folks. Growing up, he was taught at the family dinner table to emulate big-government elites.

Thanks to founding father Joe Kennedy’s great wealth, Bobby and his brothers attended their patrician schools and adopted their worldview.

In one of the best books on R.F.K., "The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy," author Michael Knox Beran contends that the Kennedy brothers were "the last American statesmen to campaign, openly and unapologetically, as heirs to the Stimsonian conception of progressive aristocracy."

The Kennedy’s revered the "wise men" — Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Maxwell Taylor and Douglas Dillon — who championed a federal administrative state managed by specialists and technocrats.

To tout his admiration, RFK named three of his children after them: Averell Harriman Kennedy, Douglas Dillon Kennedy and Maxwell Taylor Kennedy.

However, after the death of JFK, Bobby shed his awe of political patricians because, as Michael J. Sandel has concluded, "he was not, by either temperament or ideology, a true liberal."

From 1964 until his death on June 6, 1968, RFK was moving to the right, particularly on social issues. Beran reports that one of the leading keepers of the RFK flame, Jack Newfield, "conceded the existence of a conservative Bobby, a Bobby who 'believed in the work ethic, family, and the rule of law.'"

Newfield said Bobby never "abandoned," his "Puritan strain of moral conservatism."

RFK differed with most liberals because he embraced the fundamental concept of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity, the principle that affirms that decisions are most appropriately made by the local agencies closest to relevant daily realities.

Hence, Bobby defended neighborhoods — despised by haughty leftists as parochial and unenlightened — as essential for people to become self-reliant citizens.

In 1966 he argued, "The whole history of the human race until today," has "been the history of community." He lamented that it was "disappearing at a time when its sustaining strength" was "badly needed."

Kennedy challenged the ever-growing bureaucratic welfare state.

Bureaucrats, he insisted, denied "human beings mattered."

He despised "handouts," viewing welfare programs as a "second rate set of social services," that "forced fathers out of their homes and lured them away from productive work."

Bobby Kennedy was tough on crime. "No nation hiding behind locked doors," he declared, "is free, for it is imprisoned by its own fear. No nation whose citizens fear to walk the streets is healthy, for in isolation lies the poisoning of public participation."

Listening to Kennedy in 1968, Ronald Reagan said, "I get the feeling I’ve been writing some of his speeches." The New York Times titled a story, "Kennedy: Meet the Conservative."

Robert Francis Kennedy was the last Democratic presidential candidate to appeal to both working-class whites and struggling minorities. His death 50 years ago this week, caused a major rift in his party, one existing to this very day.

Proponents of identity and victim politics seized control of the Democratic Party. And disenchanted blue-collar workers and inner-city Catholics became Nixon and Reagan Democrats and put Donald Trump over the top in 2016.

Is Kennedy relevant today? Michael Knox Beran gave this insightful answer in "The Last Patrician," "[R.F.K.] reminds liberals of the importance of remaining true to the 19th century liberalism of Emerson and Lincoln, he teaches them that reforms should help to create self-reliance and self-respect in individuals, not undermine those qualities.

"Turn the safety 'net' into a trampoline. And he reminds liberals not to overlook the value inherent in older strategies for dealing with pain. He reminds conservatives that any genuine conservatism must be allied to compassion, and that, in their devotion to the principles of a free market, conservatives should not forget their obligations to the less fortunate among us. He was an imperfect man, possessed of many grievous faults, and yet we may number him among the saints."

Robert F. Kennedy, Requiescat in pace.

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.

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Robert Francis Kennedy was the last Democratic presidential candidate to appeal to both working-class whites and struggling minorities. His death 50 years ago this week, caused a major rift in his party, one existing to this very day.
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Friday, 01 June 2018 11:12 AM
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