Perspective | Magazine

An open letter to Joe Kennedy III: Here’s how to run for president

You’re the Kennedy with the best shot at the Oval Office. Look to your grandfather Bobby’s campaign strategy to get you there.

Representative Joe Kennedy III responds to the State of the Union address in January. Facing page: Bobby Kennedy campaigning in 1968.
Representative Joe Kennedy III responds to the State of the Union address in January.

Dear Joe III,

You’ll soon be the last Kennedy in politics, and it’s on you now whether America’s once-First Family could be again. As you decide, I suggest you look for inspiration not to your dad or your uncles and aunts, all of whom are or are about to be out of the electoral arena. You’re not going to do it like your dynasty-building great-grandfather and namesake, Joseph P. Sr. And while granduncles Jack and Ted were indeed grand, they are not your best role models, the former because he was a man of his times, not ours, while the latter was custom-fit for the Senate, not the White House.

It’s Grandfather Bobby who can teach you how to run and win.


Your first decision is whether to jump into the wide-open quest for the Democratic nomination. Here, Bobby’s lesson was in the breach. For a politician considered the master strategist of his era, his dramatic plunge into the ’68 presidential race was painful to watch. On March 12, the anti-war Senator Gene McCarthy embarrassed President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary by drawing half the vote. A mere four days later, Bobby leaped into the contest to unseat the suddenly vulnerable president. “Your brother’s announcement,” columnist Murray Kempton wrote in a telegram to Ted Kennedy, “makes clear that St. Patrick did not drive out all the snakes from Ireland.”

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The truth was that Bobby’s decision to challenge the president was anything but swift and calculated. He had been thinking about running for years and was tormented for months, even as (like you) he denied it. He made his mind up the week before a single anti-LBJ ballot was cast in wintry New Hampshire. No self-respecting snake would have been that tone-deaf or transparent in its timing. By the time Bobby did announce, he had missed the deadlines to enter the critical early primaries, and had failed to build the staff, organization, or bankroll that he had put in place for Jack in 1960. Instead of the reluctant hero he could have been, his tag became “Bobby-come-lately.”

Your take-away, Joe: While you may not want to look too ambitious, you’ll pay an even bigger price by looking too reticent.

FILE - In this April 2, 1968 file photo U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, shakes hands with people in a crowd while campaigning for the Democratic party's presidential nomination on a street corner, in Philadelphia. Nearly 50 years after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, a new documentary series on his life and transformation into a liberal hero is coming to Netflix. "Bobby Kennedy for President" produced by RadicalMedia, Trilogy Films and LooksFilm launches Friday, April 27, 2018, on Netflix. (AP Photo/Warren Winterbottom, File)
Warren Winterbottom/AP
Bobby Kennedy campaigning in 1968.

If you do jump in, Bobby offers an affirmative blueprint for what to do. The vision that propelled his ’68 crusade was clear and compelling, from ending our deadly entanglement in Vietnam and addressing the crisis in our cities to removing a sadly out-of-touch president. The issues today — almost 50 years to the day of your grandfather’s assassination — are nearly identical and should drive your campaign.

Ask your grandmother Ethel — who is convinced your penchant for reaching across the partisan aisle makes you a chip off Bobby’s block — about the hard truths he told. The RFK of 1968 was a bridge builder — between islands of blacks, browns, and blue-collars; between terrified parents and estranged youths; and between the establishment he’d grown up in and the New Politics he heralded.


His healing magic was on display on a chilly day 50 years ago in then-ethnically diverse Gary, Indiana. Standing with Bobby in the campaign convertible, waving to the biggest crowds their city had ever seen, were Richard Hatcher, the black mayor, and Tony Zale, a Polish-American steelworker who had boxed his way out of Gary’s ghettos to the middleweight championship of the world. In both the white and black parts of Gary, “Kennedy said precisely the same thing to both races: jobs were better than welfare . . . riots were no solution,” remembered a reporter who was there. “The reaction was equally enthusiastic.”

It wasn’t just that he was the only politician in that season of strife who was embraced on both sides of the railroad tracks. Only Bobby was willing to tell each side not merely what it wanted to hear but what it needed to hear. It was demagoguery in reverse.

Another Bobby credo that seems counterintuitive in today’s politics: Court the press.

Most journalists then were from hardscrabble backgrounds, the opposite of the Kennedy arena of privilege. But they could read in Bobby a realness that few politicians have. Most had despaired of finding a liberal with backbone or a conservative with a heart. Bobby was expressly that tough liberal — or humanistic conservative. He made reporters sympathize with this man who had everything and believe, as Jules Witcover wrote, “that to deny him, at forty-two, the leadership of the most powerful nation in the world would be unjust.”

Journalists, like everyone, are looking for those selfsame traits now — a politician who defies notions of fake news by telling hard truths, and a public figure who remains steadfast despite the pressures of today’s social media and 24/7 news cycle. If you aren’t already thinking about all of this, Joe, it’s not too early — in 2020 you’ll be almost the age Bobby was in 1968. While your resume isn’t nearly as thick as his, you have served in Congress longer than he did, and you’d be running against an incumbent with the thinnest political biography of anyone to enter the Oval Office. When you delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address in January, you reminded many of us of your grandfather — and rekindled the dream of another First Family named Kennedy, much the way Bobby had when he ran half a century ago.

Former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye’s most recent book is “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.” He is working on a biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Send comments to