Chris Matthews is host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” and author of “Bobby Kennedy : A Raging Spirit.”
My first job in politics was with the U.S. Capitol Police. It was a patronage job. A senator’s top aide laid it out this way: I’d work in the office mornings and early afternoons. At 3 p.m., I’d don my uniform and .38 police special to help protect the place.
Three months later, I was a full-time Senate legislative aide. My moonlighting in law enforcement was behind me, but not the lessons learned.
One nugget came from a building engineer with whom I spent time discussing the Capitol’s history. One evening we were sitting near the top of the escalator that connects it to the Senate office buildings — where the senators pass by on their way to a vote. He told me of the lone Democratic liberal who, in those days when the country was torn apart over Vietnam, regularly made a point of saying “hello” to the Capitol officers on duty. Unlike the others, their gaze in the middle distance, their minds on important matters, he took the occasion to address those officers as fellow human beings, or perhaps more to the point, as his colleagues.
That senator was New York’s Robert Kennedy.
On one level, it simply made sense. Bobby was a lawman, too. One of his first jobs out of U-Va. Law was working in the Justice Department, prosecuting a civil corruption case in Brooklyn. He then made his name as chief counsel on the Senate Labor Rackets Committee chasing mobbed-up union officials. To him, “law and order” wasn’t a wedge issue but a cause, one he readily campaigned on.
But I saw something else in Bobby’s connectedness with the Capitol cops: Bobby wasn’t a snob.
His contemporaries noticed the same thing. What made this Kennedy so unique, Jack Newfield wrote, “was that he felt the same empathy for white workingmen and women that he felt for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. He thought of cops, waitresses, construction workers and firefighters as his people.”
We need leaders like him today, people who can unite diverse people into governing majorities.
RFK got a lot of attention recently for the speech he gave on April 4, 1968, the evening the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
On the NBC film of that event, you can hear him asking if the crowd of African Americans before him in Indianapolis had gotten the news. They hadn’t. He had to tell them. I wonder whether other white politician in the country could have — would have — been able to do the same.
But while he championed minorities in that last campaign of his life, a run for president, he also tried to corral the old Kennedy coalition.
In Gary, Ind., he made a point of riding through that racially combustive city in an open convertible, making a very distinct statement. Seated on his right was Gary’s first African American mayor. On his left was a white former middleweight champ, Tony Zale, a favorite son known as the “Man of Steel.”
Kennedy tried his best to hold it all together — if sometimes awkwardly.
“I have an association with those who are less well off, where perhaps we can accomplish something bringing the country back together,” he told a reporter just hours before he was killed. “If that division continues . . . we’re going to have nothing but chaos and havoc here in the United States.”
Late that summer, we saw what politics looked like with him gone. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed America at war with itself. It was the clash Bobby had wanted to prevent, between the police and the college kid, between the working guy and the better off, between father and son.
It’s been that way pretty much ever since.
As the country said goodbye to Bobby, on that grim June day when his funeral train rolled slowly from New York to Washington, thousands of African Americans gathered at 30th Street in Philadelphia and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
But also along the tracks, between the cities, small poor white families stood in affectionate, patriotic salute. So did fathers and sons, including at least one pair of uniformed police officers.
I should end with a final bit of wisdom picked up from my Capitol cop days. It came from a fellow officer who commuted from West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. A real country boy, Leroy Taylor was full of attitude and hardscrabble wisdom. One day he took me, the college kid back from the Peace Corps, aside.
“You know why the little man loves his country?” he said. “Because it’s all he’s got!”
These days our politicians speak as if the interests of the discarded factory worker and the ignored inner-city youth cannot be met at the same time. Bobby Kennedy would have called that brand of politics “unacceptable.”
He saw the “little man” within all who struggled in our country. People sensed that about him and loved him for it. You saw the patriotic affection in the faces of those along the tracks that day he was carried to join his brother at Arlington.