Commentary: Just as RFK evolved, so must Clinton

Larry Tye

is the author of "Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon"

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Robert F. Kennedy greeting a crowd at 15th and Chestnut during the 1968 campaign.

I know the Democratic nominee has a lot on her mind as she prepares to accept her party's coronation. But as she hones her theme for the Clinton-for-President general election campaign, I suggest she look for inspiration from the White House bid of half a century ago by a Democrat she says she adores.

In the mid-1960s, America was undergoing social and political upheaval that seems eerily familiar today. An old politics dominated by big-city machines and labor unions was yielding to a new one whose touchstones were television and a distrust of anything old. The Cold War and New Deal seemed archaic to the generation of the Thaw and the New Left. Race riots ignited the cities and Vietnam widened the split between parents and their college-age kids - like Hillary Clinton.

There was no national consensus anymore - but there also was no figure in American politics more able and determined to build bridges between the alienated and the mainstream than Robert F. Kennedy. He sensed the shifting zeitgeist early on and that velocity propelled him forward, even as he gave it voice and direction. He had one foot in the old order, the other in the new, ever adjusting to the rocky terrain.

The journalist who best captured that push-pull wasn't a political writer or a columnist but the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who saw Bobby Kennedy's constellation of contradictions not as old vs. new but as good vs. bad. Feiffer called his schizophrenic senator the "Bobby twins," explaining that "the Good Bobby sent federal troops down South to enforce civil rights. The Bad Bobby appointed racist judges down South. The Good Bobby is a fervent civil libertarian. The Bad Bobby is a fervent wiretapper. The Good Bobby is ill at ease with liberals. The Bad Bobby is ill at ease with grown-ups."

Feiffer could pen a nearly identical cartoon today, about Hillary Clinton. Is she the Good Hillary, who wants to shake up Wall Street and hike the minimum wage, or the Bad Hillary, who pockets quarter-million-dollar speaking fees from Wall Street's biggest banks, then conceals it. The Good Hillary crashes through glass ceilings and reaches out to minorities. The Bad Hillary reshapes her message to fit whomever she's talking to.

I urge Hillary to take a lesson from Bobby. By the end of his '68 crusade for the White House, RFK had reconciled his warring halves and yielded to his better instincts in a manner that could be a better model for Clinton than any high-priced adviser. He was changing in deeper and more authentic ways than politicians generally did, which laid bare his inconsistencies and regrets. There was less moralism and more morality.

Yes, early on Bobby worked for the witch-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but he had harnessed his savage skills to causes such as ending apartheid and remaking ghettos. He'd laid claim to a rare piece of political ground as a pragmatic idealist. While some remained skeptical, others - including the rhinoceros-hided political reporters covering his campaign - were dazzled by the possibilities of a standard-bearer with that blend of tenaciousness and gentleness.

"The new Bobby was a proud man, but a humble one," said Harrison Salisbury, an editor overseeing the New York Times' political coverage. "Gone was the smart aleck. Gone was the political trickster. Gone was the shallow sureness. . . . I could hardly wait until November. I had not the slightest doubt that Robert F. Kennedy would win."

When he first jumped into the campaign, Bobby hadn't decided whether he was running as Joe's son, Jack's brother, or Lyndon Johnson's avowed enemy. He retained a piece of each, but he also found a voice and two uncomplicated motivations of his own: To end the war and end poverty.

By the end, Bobby Kennedy offered more promise than even his boosters realized. This man, who grew up mingling with queens, popes, and Hollywood idols, forged bonds not just with blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but with the firemen and bricklayers a later generation would call "Reagan Democrats." Half Che Guevara, half Niccolò Machiavelli, Bobby was a shaker-upper dedicated to the art of the possible. That he could change so substantially and convincingly over his brief public life helped restore a changing America's faith in redemption.

It's not too late for Hillary to do the same. The timing is ideal, and what's needed is clear-cut: She needs to get off her high horse and let the public see that soft core and keen intelligence that her closest friends keep talking about. Define her loyalties. Own up to past mistakes, on everything from emails to Benghazi. Offer an answer to the schizophrenic America reflected in the dueling forces of the Good Bernie and the Bad Donald.

Larry Tye will give three free public talks about RFK this week: noon Monday at the Union League, 140 South Broad St. (reserve at Foundations@unionleague.org); 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Pen and Pencil Club, 1522 Latimer St.; and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Parkway Central Library, Room 108, 1901 Vine St. @larrytye