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First and foremost, he was a democrat in the original sense of the word. “He felt the same empathy for white workingmen and women that he felt for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans,” New York columnist Jack Newfield once observed. “He thought of cops, waitresses, construction workers and firefighters as his people.”
A contemporary witness long ago confirmed this to me. He said that New York’s Robert F. Kennedy was the one Senate liberal he saw regularly greeting the on-duty Washington police officers.
It was a perception that dovetailed with my own research.
Kennedy refused to exploit this country’s ethnic divisions. His goal was to unite all working people.
Kennedy refused to exploit this country’s ethnic divisions. His goal was to unite all working people. He once drove through the racially divided city of Gary, Indiana, with prizefighter Tony Zale on one side, and Richard Hatcher, the city’s first African-American mayor on the other.
That same theme animated his political persona right to the end. “I have an association with those who are less well off, where perhaps we can accomplish something, bringing the country together,” Kennedy told an interviewer on the last night of his life. “If the division continues, we’re going to have nothing but chaos and havoc here in the United States.”
Tragically, Kennedy’s career was cut short. Had this younger Kennedy survived, I feel confident he would have gone on to serve his country with honor and distinction. I know this in part because Kennedy was a man forever trying to improve himself. He was the rare political leader determined to learn from his mistakes, especially the bad ones.