Will Kamala Inspire a New Camelot?
- Ronald Goldfarb
- August 21, 2020
The veep nominee bears a striking political resemblance to RFK.
The idea that Sen. Kamala Harris’ entrance onto the national political scene reminds me of my experience working for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy may seem a strange comparison. No two politicians began with such obvious differences: geography, social and political backgrounds, gender, race. Each category suggests opposites.
While RFK emerged late in his career as a humanist and a uniquely appealing public figure, he always was a work in progress. He came to public life as a tough prosecutor working on Senate committees that were criticized by liberals.
I had to be talked into working for him when I was recruited by the Justice Department to prosecute organized-crime cases. He had been unimpressive, ruthless some said, early in his career. His appointment as attorney general was nepotism; in fact, he did not want the job.
All the time I worked for him at Justice, and later as one of his speechwriters in his New York Senate campaign, my liberal friends questioned how I could work for him and complained I was selling out.
He wrote me a personal note from the Senate saying, “Every time I turn on my TV you are defending me.” It seemed so. But what I had planned as a one-year commitment to handle major trials before beginning a teaching career became four years working with him at Justice and after, until he was killed.
I wrote a book about those years at Justice, Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes, describing the winning personal and human side of RFK, a side we who worked for him saw but much of the public and his critics did not.
He was not an intellectual, nor is Kamala Harris. But they both possess special credibility across cultural and political lines. She wrongly supported prosecutors who misbehaved (Brady cases, they were called, shielding DAs who withheld exonerating evidence from defendants they sent to prison). He worked, briefly, for Joseph McCarthy.
Neither was or is a perfect hero.
But both have widely admired credibility and charisma. Like Barack Obama, Harris has a light-up-the-room smile. Like Frank Sinatra, RFK was mobbed on the streets by hysterical admirers. Like RFK and, more recently, Bernie Sanders, Harris will appeal to young people, surely young women.
Only RFK could have spoken extemporaneously to a Black crowd in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He said (no speechwriter; straight from the heart) he knew what they felt, and they believed him. “I had a brother killed too, also by a white man,” he extemporized.
Harris dramatically remembered leaving home to be bused to school as a child, despite some critics now alleging she isn’t really Black! Both young politicians approached the political summit as controversial candidates, though from contrasting routes.
Eventually, RFK’s charisma and humanity displayed themselves through his visiting of Mississippi hovels; his improving of New York City’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood; his meeting with César Chavez at a remote enclave in California when Chavez was on a hunger strike for farmers’ rights; and, finally, in his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
RFK was late coming to that latter cause, it was noted, as he was on civil rights, but he got there and was powerfully influential when he did.
He appealed to cab drivers, working-class Catholics, and, eventually, West Side New York City liberals. I agreed with Norman Mailer when he wrote that RFK was a unique figure who offered a last opportunity for a progressive politician to lead America. I was sure RFK would become president and urged him to run. His last night in California ended that possibility, and later Democrats did not match his stature and wide appeal.
Kamala Harris, also misjudged by early critics, reminds me of RFK. As California’s attorney general, she, too, was imperfect. But she has RFK’s magnetism and his ability to be a bridge between tough prosecutors and empathetic minority-rights advocates.
I wept over RFK’s murder in the middle of the night on June 6, 1968, but I can imagine Harris completing his dramatic, unfinished role of bringing America to a better place over half a century later.
I foresee a time when an experienced Harris will be called upon — as was RFK later in his life — by demanding events, when her toughness, as well as her engaging personal magic, will be demonstrated.
But unlike RFK, she will have the chance to surpass her president and emerge as a unique national leader — the first woman to do so — at the right time in our country’s rocky history.
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney, author, and literary agent. His latest book, The Price of Justice, will be published in October.