Dems need to channel their inner RFKs

This week we are all remembering, in our own ways, the lessons Robert F. Kennedy was in the process of teaching us – about our nation, our politics, and ourselves – when an assassin’s bullet ripped him from us 50 years ago.

Like all of you, I am awash in videos replaying all that happened in America’s tumultuous, indeed shattering, year of 1968. But unlike all of you, I am also remembering a lesson the forever boyish-looking man the world called Bobby helped teach a truly boyish rookie reporter from Newsday who was covering his first presidential campaign in 1968.

Actually, Kennedy helped teach me that lesson not just once, but twice – both times posthumously, in 1968 and 2015. On both occasions, the lesson that began with the progressive populist Bobby Kennedy was driven home conclusively with a little help from two other populists who seemed to have little in common with RFK: Alabama’s segregationist populist Democratic Gov. George Wallace and New York’s ego-centrist populist Donald Trump.

Their combined examples helped me produce a pundit’s version of an investigative scoop: an insight that proved not just prescient but unarguably accurate. It enabled me to write a warning call column of July 2015 that cautioned pols and fellow journalists who were dismissing Donald Trump as just a late-night national punchline to rewrite and rethink. I explained why, in 2016, Trump truly had the potential of becoming our next president. (In 2015, that produced more hoots and hollers than hosannas.)

First, remember 1968: Bobby Kennedy was killed in June. In September, Wallace was running as the third-party independent candidate of his own American Independent Party. Five years earlier, Gov. Wallace had infamously stood in the schoolhouse door to block African-Americans from enrolling at the University of Alabama. U.S. Attorney General Kennedy had dispatched National Guard troops and they forced Wallace to step aside, integrating the university.

Two months later, on the night of June 4, 1968, Kennedy won California’s crucial Democratic presidential primary, greeted his cheering crowd, and was escorted through a kitchen hallway where, at 12:15 a.m. on June 5, a fatal gunshot sounded.

In September, Wallace switched from being a southern regional candidate – and campaigned through the northern Rust Belt. When he stunned the pols and press by drawing large crowds, I left the press areas and spent hours asking blue collar union workers wearing Wallace buttons just one question: If we were talking way back in February (a month I chose carefully), who would they have said they favored for president?

I repeatedly heard the same answer: Bobby Kennedy. And I told them their answers would shock Kennedy and Wallace; I even explained about Alabama’s schoolhouse door. But those 1968 Wallace voters said they hadn’t thought about the racial stuff. They had a different reason for picking Kennedy and, after he was killed, Wallace: Folks said those two were the only candidates who seemed to care about talking to “people like me.”

A Newark mailman wearing a Wallace button boasted proudly that he had Bobby’s autograph back home, adding: “He had the same thing Wallace has got that none of the other politicians have: guts.” And I wrote that story for Newsday in the fall of 1968. But many reporters just figured such talk didn’t seem to track with their conventional wisdom.

Fast-forward to 2015:

Trump was drawing huge crowds. Once again I heard blue collar voters who were once the Democratic Party’s base saying the sort of things I’d heard from those 1968 folks. While I thought Trump was a demagogue and dishonest con artist, the folks in his audiences felt he was the only one talking to folks like them. Hillary Clinton clearly wasn’t and I didn’t think she ever would. Hillary didn’t have the appeal Bobby had for the folks who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But the Donald did.

So on July 22, 2015, with lessons of Bobby Kennedy and George Wallace in mind, I took issue with those who were wading in the mainstream and scoffing at Trump’s crowds as just the vocal crazies. I believed then – even more so now! – that the frustrated blue collar voters who were once the Democrats’ base must be reclaimed and rehabbed.

My 2015 column ended by warning Americans not to be surprised to discover on Election Night 2016, that “America’s fed-up, mad-as-hell voters just chose your next president.”

Democratic Alert: The weight of those still-frustrated voters will prove every bit as decisive on the Election Nights of 2018 and 2020. Are you talking to them yet?

What would Bobby be saying?

This article provided by NewsEdge.