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Why Robert F. Kennedy was not an ‘orthodox liberal’

This week marks 50 years since Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated moments after winning the California presidential primary. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield, his former Senate aide and campaign speechwriter, discusses Kennedy’s politics, his unique approach to politics and why his ideas are relevant to today’s fractured political environment.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This week will mark 50 years since Senator Robert Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles, moments after claiming victory in the California presidential primary. Yet, he continues to be the subject of intense interest, even fascination. What was he campaigning for? What made him unique? Here to talk about that is special correspondent Jeff Greenfield who was a Senate aide and campaign speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. He joins us from Santa Barbara, California. Jeff, he didn't make it to the White House. Why are we still so fascinated with him 50 years later?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    I think, in part, that is the explanation — being taken off the scene at age 42 enables people to pour their hopes into him. They can say he would have ended the war in Vietnam, he would have heal the divisions in the country, he would have made a real start on endemic poverty. That's one explanation. The other, is the unique persona of this guy and here was the second most powerful person in America suddenly thrown into political exile because of his brother's murder who somehow deepened an acute feeling of empathy with the folks left out — blacks in the ghetto, native Americans on reservations, Hispanics and migrant workcamps, poor whites in eastern Kentucky — and that kind of passionate involvement is something, I think, we still are looking to see again somehow with any of our political figures.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Were those political ideas unique at the time?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Very much so. Robert Kennedy, and this is widely misunderstood still, was not an orthodox liberal. He often talked about the detachment and the distance of an overweening federal government, he believed in local control of community projects, he was a severe critic of the welfare system, he would not have been content with federal aid to education because he said we need to restructure the schools. So, in a lot of ways, he was different from the prevailing liberal sentiments, which is why, I think, what he had to say struck such a responsive chord both among his supporters and his opponents.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Were there lessons from '68 that we could apply today?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Well, half a century is a very long time. But there is one factor. Back then, the coalition in the Democratic Party between blacks and white working class was already fracturing. There were fights in cities over busing for school integration, police practices and crime welfare access to jobs and housing. He began, at the end, to talk a very kind of liberal populist line about for instance, rich people not paying taxes. When you look at what happened, for instance, in the last campaign, you see that that fracturing in the Democratic Party is now almost complete. I have no idea whether Robert Kennedy could have could have held that together but that was a big concern of his. That's still very much dominates the party's concerns today.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And speaking of concerns, today we've got a lot in the news this week. We've got a Korea summit that might be back on. I say might, looks like it will be but who knows. We've got threats of a trade war brewing between China and our allies Canada and Mexico, the European Union. What sticks out to you as a big story?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    One of the things that hit me was the barrage of attacks from the right on Trey Gowdy, the chair of the House Oversight Commission, who up until now has been a hero on the right for relentlessly pursuing alleged corruption and scandals in the Obama administration. But when he said, yeah, he thought the FBI had acted properly in getting an informant to talk to people on the Trump campaign, the entire right wing of the media and the Republican Party just turned against him called him a rhino Republican in name only. And why I think that's so interesting is Trump continues to succeed in building a wall around him to protect him from whatever investigations might turn out because he now ranks higher among his own party members than any president in recent American history except for George Bush right after 9/11. So that may not be the headline of the week but it struck me as one of the most intriguing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the series of headlines that we've seen over the last couple of days is the New York Times obtaining a legal memo that the Trump team had said it had sent to Robert Mueller. And you've got some of his aides saying that the president can basically pardon himself. What stands out about the strategy here?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Every time I think things can't get weirder. Back in 1977, ex-President Nixon told interviewer David Frost if the president does it that means it's not illegal. And there was a tsunami of outrage. What kind of assertion of limitless presidential power is that? Well, Trump's lawyers have made exactly that argument with respect to his power over pardons and his power over the investigation. It is an assertion of presidential power that is unlike anything I can remember anywhere in our history. And we'll see whether or not the fallout of that may at this point persuade some Republicans in Congress say, wait a minute Mr. President you're overstepping here or whether they just say, OK that's what the president says, we're OK with that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Jeff Greenfield joining us from Santa Barbara. Thanks so much.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    OK.

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