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.
Instead, I see a failure to embrace all sorts of people, even members of Congress and the business community. I see diffidence, a reluctance to close. I see a president for whom Afghanistan is not just a war but a metaphor for his approach to politics: He approved a surge but also an exit date. Heads I win, tails you lose.
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. He remains a startling figure for a nation that was still segregating its schools when I was growing up — and killing the occasional person who protested. I went up to Harlem the night Obama won and heard Charlie Rangel wonder at the wonder of it all. The street outside was named for Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, an earlier black politician. His aides were not permitted to eat in the House cafeteria.
History was draped over Obama like a cape. His bona fides in that sense were as unimpeachable as Bobby Kennedy's. The crowd adored Obama, although not as much as I think he adored himself. Liberals were intolerant of anyone who had doubts. Obama was not a man, but a totem. A single critical column from me during the campaign triggered a fusillade of invective. The famous and esteemed told me off. I was the tool of right-wing haters, a dope of a dupe.
Kennedy had huge causes. End poverty. End the war. He challenged a sitting president over Vietnam. It could have cost him his career. It did cost him his life. The draft is long gone and with it indignation about senseless wars. Poverty persists, but now it is mostly blamed on the poor. When it comes to the underclass, we are out of ideas .