One of the more melancholy moments of the presidential campaign occurred for me in a screening room. The film was Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her mother, Ethel — the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. Much of it consisted of Kennedy-family home movies, but also film of RFK in Appalachia and in Mississippi among the pitifully emaciated poor. Kennedy brimmed with shock and indignation, with sorrow and sympathy, and was determined — you could see it on his face — to do something about it. I’ve never seen that look on Barack Obama’s face.
Instead, I see a failure to embrace all sorts of people, even members of Congress and the business community. I see diffidence, a reluctance to close. I see a president for whom Afghanistan is not just a war but a metaphor for his approach to politics: He approved a surge but also an exit date. Heads I win, tails you lose.
I once wondered if Obama could be another RFK. The president has great political skills and a dazzling smile. He and his wife are glamorous figures. He’s a black man, and that matters greatly. He remains a startling figure for a nation that was still segregating its schools when I was growing up — and killing the occasional person who protested. I went up to Harlem the night Obama won and heard Charlie Rangel wonder at the wonder of it all. The street outside was named for Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, an earlier black politician. His aides were not permitted to eat in the House cafeteria.
History was draped over Obama like a cape. His bona fides in that sense were as unimpeachable as Bobby Kennedy’s. The crowd adored Obama, although not as much as I think he adored himself. Liberals were intolerant of anyone who had doubts. Obama was not a man, but a totem. A single critical column from me during the campaign triggered a fusillade of invective. The famous and esteemed told me off. I was the tool of right-wing haters, a dope of a dupe.
Kennedy had huge causes. End poverty. End the war. He challenged a sitting president over Vietnam. It could have cost him his career. It did cost him his life. The draft is long gone, and with it indignation about senseless wars. Poverty persists, but now it is mostly blamed on the poor. When it comes to the underclass, we are out of ideas . . . or patience. Or both. Pity Obama in this regard. It’s hard to summon us for a crusade that has already been fought and lost. We made war on poverty. Poverty hardly noticed.
But somewhere between the campaign and the White House itself, Obama got lost. It turned out he had no cause at all. Expanding health insurance was Hillary Clinton’s longtime goal, and even after Obama adopted it, he never argued for it with any fervor. In an unfairly mocked campaign speech, he promised to slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal the planet. But when he took office, climate change was abandoned — too much trouble, too much opposition. His eloquence, it turned out, was reserved for campaigning.
Obama never espoused a cause bigger than his own political survival. This is the gravamen of the indictment from the left, particularly certain African Americans. They are right. Young black men fill the jails and the morgues, yet Obama says nothing. Bobby Kennedy showed his anger, his impatience, his stunned incredulity at the state of black America. Obama shows nothing.
The Post has endorsed Obama, and I cannot quibble with the editorial. He expanded the nation’s sorry health-care system. He steered the country around the banking, housing and financial crisis that threatened to crater the economy. He got Osama bin Laden and that was good, but he also let Syria fester and that was bad. Most important, he has not been taken hostage by a bumper-sticker ideology. Mitt Romney promises never to raise taxes — either a lie or a fool’s oath.
On the movie screen, Robert F. Kennedy’s appeal is obvious: authenticity. He cared. He showed it. People saw that and cared about him in return. With Obama, the process is reversed. It’s hard to care about someone who seems not to care in return. I will vote for him for his good things, and I will vote for him to keep Republican vandals from sacking the government. But after watching Bobby Kennedy, I will vote for Obama with regret. I wish he was the man I once mistook him for.