Bobby Kennedy: The Secular Saint

In about March or April of 1968 (is it really so many years ago?), I received a call in my Stanford office asking me whether I could meet with Robert F. Kennedy in San Francisco on his first trip to the Commonwealth as a presidential candidate. I said yes, for Bobby was already my favorite among the Kennedy brothers, the one I felt a closer bond to. But the invitation also troubled me. One night at the beginning of the year, all over California, election parties were being held at candlelight dinners to gather signatures so that Eugene McCarthy would run for the presidency, and I had been among the minor-level instigators of the effort.

At that point, Bobby was not running, and it looked as though no one on the sane anti-war side would challenge Lyndon Johnson. In addition, Senator McCarthy was a close friend of mine. We had met and talked a number of times, both of us “Commonweal Catholics,” and from the first talked as old friends talked, citing the same books and similar experiences. Gene had attended St. John’s in Collegeville and was an exceptionally literate and gracious Catholic. He had read with pleasure and intelligence hundreds of serious Catholic works by Claudel, Peguy, Yeats (maybe most of all, Yeats), Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, G.K. Chesterton, Belloc, Maritain, Yves Simon, Romano Guardini, Sigrid Undset, Heinrich Böll—all the writers of the “modern Catholic Renaissance.” Thus, if Bobby invited me to join him, I would face a painful dilemma.

The Senator from Minnesota’s Catholicism didn’t think much of the unlearned “Southie’s” Boston-style Catholicism. McCarthy wanted to blaze a new path for Christians and Jews in public life. A path of learning and poetry and joyous fun.

The day after the phone call, I was met at the San Francisco hotel by John Seigenthaler of the Nashville Tennessean, who ushered me up to meet Senator Kennedy. Either he told me, or Bobby told me, two things. The first was that my article in Motive magazine, a Methodist journal then edited in Nashville by B.J. Stiles, had had a profound influence on Bobby’s decision to get into the race. The article was called “The Secular Saint” and made a case for a kind of heroic existentialism, beyond the then prevalent value-free liberal realism.

The second was that I was among the first people Senator Kennedy wanted to see on his first day in California. Even then I knew enough to discount what a politician says in passing praise, even a political leader with such clear and penetrating and vulnerable eyes.

The bottom line was that Kennedy asked me to join his campaign. He urged me to help, especially among the young, among whom he said I had a certain influence. He asked if I could first go up to Oregon for the campaign—the campaign would pay the fare and put me up and provide transport. He wanted me then to help him in the truly decisive campaign in California.

“I’ve had a talk with Mayor Daley,” he told me, in whose Chicago the Democratic Convention would be held, “and he will not support a loser. I have to win in California. I have to win California.” He looked into the distance (something he often did while talking with others). “Then I have to persuade him I am going to win in November. Odd how it’s two totally different campaigns, winning the nomination, winning the presidency. I’ve got the job of my life winning California. But then it will be even tougher, going into November. But it’s doable. Can I have your help?” He turned those clear blue eyes full on my eyes: “Will you help?”

I told him I had urged Gene McCarthy to throw his hat in, and that it would be hard for me to abandon him now. I asked for twenty-four hours to think about it. Both the candidate and Mr. Siegenthaler respected that. They said they would be hoping for a good answer the next day.

Even at that time, I was thinking of the working-class ethnic wards of Chicago, Milwaukee, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other cities, and of the need to unite both blacks and working-class whites. If not Bobby, I couldn’t see who else could do it.

Later, after Bobby’s assassination, and Hubert Humphrey’s defeat of Gene McCarthy at the convention, it became clear to me that Humphrey could also unite those two wings of the Democratic party. But earlier that summer, because of a visceral disgust that rose in me from a silly talk on the Vietnam War that Humphrey had given on the Stanford campus (which I have described in Politics, Realism, and Imagination), I could not envisage Humphrey as a candidate. For months, I could not support him.

Reflecting on the primaries already concluded, it seemed to me that Gene McCarthy was doing better in the suburbs—energizing a whole new type of Democratic electoral “machine”— but was not doing so well in the “ethnic” cities that preoccupied me then. (I believed then, and still believe, due allowance being made for changing times, that they are the key to presidential politics.) The more the elite press sneered at Bobby as “ruthless,” the more it seemed to me that white ethnics were flocking to him. If he was an s.o.b., so much the better, because they had already decided that it would take some really ruthless s.o.b. to straighten out the way the Democratic party—and the country’s elites—were marching backward in the name of “progress.”

I loved Gene McCarthy. The verb is not too strong. Many an evening, before and afterward, he would sit in our living room after dinner and respond to the invitation to recite some poetry—especially Yeats—and he would demur, and wisecrack, and then launch out into thirty or forty minutes of long ballads he had committed to memory. He had the perfect Irish voice for the part, understated but full of music. Occasionally, he’d stumble on a line and have to begin it again. Once or twice a tear would appear in his eye at an especially affecting part. “Michael, do we have time for another one?” he would ask. “Just this short one,” he would rush on with a smile. He loved reciting poetry and had too few occasions for it. He much preferred poetry to political speeches, but at the latter he also excelled.

I had to telephone Gene that night to tell him I was switching to Bobby, and why. He was wounded, I could hear it in his voice. From such as me, especially, he expected better. But the gentlemanly senator never let that deed of mine injure our friendship. He still came to our table for many years afterward for an evening, after dinner reciting poetry.

So I called back Mr. Siegenthaler in the morning and said yes. That is how I came to campaign for Senator Robert Kennedy in Oregon (and had to be corrected during my very first outing how to pronounce the name of the state). It was the first primary that Bobby Kennedy ever lost.

At the end of the California campaign a few weeks later, I had another call from the Kennedy campaign, inviting me to join the senator and his traveling staff in a small plane at the San Francisco airport for the ride down to Los Angeles. I was thrilled, but my wife had two babies at home, the youngest only nine months old, and it seemed I really ought not to go. Later that evening, after it was clear that Senator Kennedy had won, I went to the other room, the children being asleep, and then heard Karen shouting out to me to come quickly to the television. There he was, in replay, falling under a sudden shot, on his way out to the arena, in the midst of his closest staff. I would have been among them, relative outsider though I was. Plunging downward from the exultation of a decisive electoral victory, it was a sickening, devastating night, and morning, and night again.

A few days later, I was lucky enough to sit quietly at the funeral at St. Patrick’s to take the family funeral train down to Washington and to attend the sorrowful burial in Arlington Cemetery. Is my memory deceiving me, or do I remember a priest from Ireland presiding at the grave and calling Bobby Kennedy a saint for his efforts for the poor and downtrodden? It was a note I did not like.

Yet in my mind, Bobby was, in fact, a kind of “secular saint” such as I had described in the article by that name in Momentum. True, I had in mind people even more secular than he, who show compassion and do good deeds and work with hope. They may be secular and yet they act as Christians would want to act. How can that be, not to believe, and yet to act as though one were a Christian? Albert Camus pondered that puzzle.

In Bobby’s case, I tended to agree with Gene McCarthy. Bobby seemed to me, like his brothers, Catholic by birth, habit, and perhaps even sentiment—but not by intellect or the learning appropriate to his station. One wondered which serious religious authors he or his brothers had read, if any.

Thus, in a sense, Bobby, too, struck me as a “secular” saint. He seemed to touch a lot of nonbelievers in a highly moral, aspiring way. It is said that “at the heart of Christianity lies the sinner.” So I am by no means arguing that Bobby Kennedy was sinless. We didn’t know then about his liaisons with Marilyn Monroe. Yet even if we had, some of us would not have been too hard on his weaknesses in certain areas, but more inclined to look upon his sheer raw guts and the burning determination of his eyes when he glimpsed something he had to do and fight through, whatever unknown difficulties he must face.

In those days, I was fascinated by the overlap, in actions at least if not in words, of many people I knew, some of who were believers and some unbelievers. The latter seemed to me, in action, far more Christian or Jewish than they would admit to being. (They certainly were not nihilist nor even amoral, and not relativist nor morally indifferent.) And the Christians seemed to me to live in a deeper, darker night than they much speak about, closer in many ways to unbelief than to belief—at least so far as feelings go. There are many days when the believer, trying to become conscious of God’s presence within, feels nothing at all, sees nothing at all.

Sometimes it is easier to act as a particular way of life demands than to say one believes in it. And it may be a quite noble way of life, indeed.

Let God sort us all out, I used to think (and still do). He sees it all more clearly.

Published in First Things August 12, 2006