It was not like most campaigns, where the careful candidate strives mightily not to make waves, mistakes, or enemies. It was a different campaign in which the candidate would sometimes publicly scold his audience for its alleged selfishness. For the candidate, it was not enough merely to comfort the afflicted; he deliberately chose to afflict the comfortable.
This is the 15th May since Robert Kennedy ran for president. In that time, much has changed in our nation and in our world. But from that brief campaign survives one major political precept, which 1984 candidates seem to have forgotten: while winning politics is always a matter of addition and not subtraction, the candidate who is gutsy enough to tell an audience both what the candidate obviously believes and what the audience obviously doesn't want to hear can succeed politically.
In Indianapolis on April 26, 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy, according to David Broder, of The Post, "encountered the sharpest heckling of his Indiana campaign at the Indiana University Medical Center." Kennedy was there "booed and hissed, as his observations on Social Security, segregation, the draft, and the relationship of government and medicine drew strong opposition from many in his audience."
One medical student demanded of Robert Kennedy: "Where are you going to get the money for all these federally subsidized programs you are talking about?" In an answer remarkable for both its brevity and its candor, Kennedy made his managers wince by stating: "From you." There was none of the perennial rhetoric about closing loopholes available only to Texas oil millionaires. The candidate told the future doctors what they presumably did not want to hear--that they would pay because, as he put it, "you are the privileged ones."
Three weeks later in Omaha, just two days before the Nebraska primary, at Creighton University, Kennedy asked how many in his mostly student audience favored deferring students from the draft, then in effect. When a majority of the hands went up, the candidate grew indignant:
"Look around you. How many black faces do you see here, how many American Indians, how many Mexican-Americans? . . . If you look at any regiment or division of paratroopers in Vietnam, 45 percent of them are black. You're the most exclusive minority in the world. Are you just going to sit on your duffs and do nothing or just carry signs and protest?"
The Creighton confrontation confirmed another axiom of national politics: unless a presidential candidate puts it there, no problem is a real political issue until it reaches the nation's affluent and articulate suburbs. That was true of illegal drugs, which, for two generations had quietly infected the nation's major cities, only to become a national crisis when the profitable market of white suburban teen-agers was opened up. Lately, we have seen the same reaction with public education. In 1968, increasing draft calls could no longer be met with the sons of American working-class families, black and white and Hispanic. When the war touched the suburbs, it became a transcendent moral issue.
By the issues a candidate addresses, the candidate tells the electorate what he believes is the pressing public business. By the way the candidate raises those issues, the candidate reveals much about himself. In Indianapolis and Omaha, Robert Kennedy told us he knew he could not get everyone's vote, that he was willing to write off some constituency. The 1984 candidate who follows that lead will have a large advantage over the field of constituency coddlers, both Democratic and Republican.