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Review: When Robert Kennedy gave his all

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  • Reviewer: "The Last Campaign" worthy addition to Robert Kennedy books
  • Thurston Clarke's work follows RFK through his 82-day presidential run
  • Book sometimes glorifies Kennedy, but with apparent reason
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- A few days before the 1968 California Democratic primary, Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood told his editor he wanted to stop covering Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for president.

RFK

Robert Kennedy's campaign for president lasted 82 days before he died on June 6, 1968.

"I'm falling in love with the guy," he said, according to Thurston Clarke's "The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America" (Henry Holt).

It was easy to see why. During his ill-fated run for the presidency, Kennedy appeared to be that rarest of candidates, the truth teller. By many accounts, he meant every word he said, particularly those about fighting prejudice and poverty. He refused to kowtow to his audiences, and he wore his emotions on his sleeves (adoring crowds sometimes shredded his cuffs). And he pondered questions before offering thoughtful, sometimes stammering, answers.

Indeed, if Clarke's careful and moving book has a problem, it's that the author also seems to have fallen a little in love with his subject. The hard-nosed -- the preferred adjective was "ruthless" -- RFK who shrewdly managed his brother's presidential campaign gets short shrift. The book sometimes seems to exist in its own bubble, lacking the uncertainty that afflicted Kennedy in fighting his uphill nomination battle.

But if you can get past the occasional hagiography, what emerges is a fine addition to the Kennedy canon. Video Watch photographer, writer recall RFK's last days »

Clarke's book is illuminated by his interviews with Kennedy beat writers and audience members, which give his retracing of the campaign's exhaustive travels a striking immediacy. Given that there's no shortage of material on the man himself -- Arthur Schlesinger's mammoth 1978 "Robert Kennedy and His Times" and Evan Thomas' 2000 biography "Robert Kennedy: His Life" come to mind -- that's a worthy achievement.

Clarke usually works on a grass-roots level, providing welcome glimpses of Kennedy's sense of humor and showing how even small RFK gestures stayed with people for decades.

What they often remember is the challenge of the man, a candidate unafraid of campaigning among the poorest of the poor in cities and on reservations. While Hubert Humphrey preached the "Politics of Joy" in that brutal year -- and Eugene McCarthy simply lectured -- Kennedy answered questions with questions, at his best when he asked as much from his audience as he did from himself.

Indeed, Kennedy seemed to revel in hostile audiences, Clarke observes. Some he won over with his candor. Others he couldn't have cared less about accommodating. At a speech at the Indiana University Medical School, he faced a stony crowd of doctors-to-be.

"All these programs sound very find and nice and all that, but where's the money gonna come from?" one student asked about Kennedy's proposals to help the poor.

Having listened to several similar questions, Kennedy had had enough. "From you!" he roared, pointing at people around the hall. "From you! ... You!"

Probably only Mr. Smith, "The Candidate's" Bill McKay and Jay Bulworth could have gotten away with that.

In Clarke's telling, the end comes quietly, two pages after the June 5 shooting. There's no investigation of conspiracy theories, no long recollections by friends. It's appropriate to his tone. Video Watch Clarke talk about why RFK resonates »

There is, however, a fascinating postscript. Clarke found RFK's post-California schedule in the Kennedy Library, and the document shows what might have been, at least for 10 days: campaigning in his home state New York primary, bicycling in Central Park, attending a firemen's association event.

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Whether it would have led to the presidency is a cruel question history never answered. And with Robert Kennedy, questions are all that's left.

"Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not," he often said, quoting George Bernard Shaw. Edward Kennedy read those words at his funeral.

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