- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

America is always hungry for heroes. The lists at the end of the year make that abundantly clear. The century opened with artists depicting the "anti-hero," a shrunken, skinny Homo Sapiens, but by the end of it we concentrated mostly on those men and women who captured the imagination as greater than life-size leaders.

As in antiques and art, often at least a hundred years must pass to allow historians to evaluate a leader's worth, or lack of it. Conspicuous at the end of the century were those who had lost their initial luster.

Few champions achieve the success of Achilles, who chose to die young and gloriously rather than run out the clock, like Ulysses. Jack and Robert Kennedy established an Achilles-like aura even though they were merely at the pinnacle of potential when they died by an assassin's bullet. Like the death of Elvis, in the famous remark of a Hollywood producer on getting the news of Elvis' death, theirs was a "good career move." By the end of the century both Jack and Bobby had been "re-evaluated" by historians.

We know now that Jack Kennedy put his country at risk with his Mafia connections and historians have pretty well established that he stole the 1960 election from Richard Nixon when his father paid for a majority in Chicago and Cook County. A band of loyal idealists have labored stubbornly to nurture the flame of brother Bobby's reputation for what might have been. This adulation persisted in perverse relation to his inability to accomplish very much noteworthy.

But there are other more provocative reasons for the RFK myth. In "In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy," Ronald Steel extinguishes the dying embers of the Bobby Kennedy flame. He shows why it took so long for those who courted Bobby to move into the second stage of romance, when unpleasant reality intrudes.

His chapter on Bobby's carpetbagger decision to run for the Senate from New York and his later disappointment with the job should be required reading for Hillary Rodham Clinton. The comparisons and contrasts between Bobby and Hillary are striking. Bobby was Machiavellian and hypocritical. He chose to run for the New York seat even though he hadn't lived in New York since he was 12. Like Hillary, he needed an outlet to get from under someone else's image. Unlike Hillary, however, Bobby could revel in the shadow of his brother's ghost in ways that Hillary cannot capitalize on the lame duck days of her husband's presidency. Just as Jack's death humanized Bobby, Monica Lewinsky gave Hillary a victim status that humanizes her. Hence the soaring early polls.

Like Bobby, Hillary often talks out of both sides of her mouth to broaden her constituency. No matter how much curiosity Bobby demonstrated in meeting with New Left radicals nor how many love beads he wore around his neck, writes Mr. Steel, he was not a "cultural rebel." He told a friend that he wished he had been born an Indian, but visiting a reservation did not make him a Navaho. Hillary's health plan revealed her to be a devotee of big government, though that was not the spin. In 1993 she told Parade magazine, "I find it so amusing when people think that I'm in favor of big government or big anything, because I'm not."

Bobby, according to Mr. Steel, had a "disturbing tendency to justify whatever behavior he found useful" and was ruthless in pursuit of his aims. Hillary tried to get rid of the White House Travel office ("We need those people out, we need our people in.") She demonized her husband's opponents by citing a "vast right-wing conspiracy" as responsible for rumors of his adultery.

Bobby probably wouldn't have won his Senate seat had it not been for Lyndon Johnson's coattails. Hillary can't count on that kind of luck. Like Bobby, she draws on her celebrity and crowds of supporters are wildly enthusiastic. But it is becoming clear that she can't sustain such mindless enthusiasm any more than Bobby did.

What ought to caution Hillary is the memory of Bobby's dissatisfaction with becoming a senator. He missed running things. He disliked being one among equals in a hierarchical club with others as vain and ambitious as he was. He hated it that his name was not so significant in a crowded field of presidential wannabees. He had to appeal to a national constituency when the office confined him to the province.

More than any other politician of his time Robert Kennedy required, like the improbable scripts and personalities of grand opera, a "suspension of disbelief," writes Ronald Steel. "The response he stimulated was not polite applause or mild disapproval, but love or hate." Sounds familiar to me.

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