This morning's WaPo carries an essay from Richard Cohen faulting Barack Obama for not being Bobby Kennedy:
One of the more melancholy moments of the presidential campaign occurred for me in a screening room. The film was Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her mother, Ethel — the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. Much of it consisted of Kennedy-family home movies, but also film of RFK in Appalachia and in Mississippi among the pitifully emaciated poor. Kennedy brimmed with shock and indignation, with sorrow and sympathy, and was determined — you could see it on his face — to do something about it. I’ve never seen that look on Barack Obama’s face.
He goes on:
I once wondered if Obama could be another RFK. The president has great political skills and a dazzling smile. He and his wife are glamorous figures. He’s a black man, and that matters greatly.
Indeed, it does matter greatly. Has Cohen not seen the AP report, only a few days ago, that suggests that more than half of white Americans - and more than two-thirds of white Republicans - admit to anti-black prejudice? Is he not aware that Limbaugh nation's millions are led by nose-ropes by a man who gleefully sang (on air) of "Barack the Magic Negro"?
Yes, Bobby Kennedy (whose memory I mostly revere) was Roman Catholic, which many then counted as a strike against him. As a young Roman Catholic growing up in Kentucky, I thrilled at his brother's election in 1960. But Bobby Kennedy was also a super-rich white man from a celebrated family, and the brother of a martyred president beloved by most of the country. His sympathy for the miserable poor of Appalachia was heartfelt and stirring, given his own background. It was also cost-free, politically speaking.
Can you imagine if Barack Obama had made a huge point of identifying his politics specifically with championing poor blacks? It would have rendered him essentially a cloning of Jesse Jackson: cheered by millions, yet defeated in the end. Given the anti-black prejudice that still burdens the souls of millions of rural whites - especially in the heavily GOP South - there's no way that Obama coulld have gone to Appalachia and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Obama himself has been a bridge-builder between whites and blacks, in Hawaii, in Chicago. But it's hard to imagine those white Christian folks of Alabama and Georgia - or my own home state of Kentucky - accepting him as their champion.
Cohen fails to mention that Obama did try, at the outset of his term, to reach out to one group of people (please allow me this vast overgeneralization, for rhetorical purposes) who needed his help, and with whom the US needs to build bridges: the mostly Muslim Arabs of the Middle East. His Cairo speech of 2009 raised hopes across that region, and earned him a (perhaps prematurely awarded) Nobel Peace Prize.
He tried to act on that speech by insisting that Mr. Netanyahu freeze Israel's colonization of the West Bank, only to have Netanyahu - and his own Congress - stiff-arm him.
And I don't recall Richard Cohen stepping up to support Obama in that cause - one that, I'd wager, Bobby Kennedy would have supported wholeheartedly.