National Press Club

Crowds saluting train with Robert Kennedy's body inspired Matthews' new book

November 9, 2017 | By Eleanor Herman |

Club President Jeff Ballou shares a joke with TV host Chris Matthews

Club President Jeff Ballou shares a joke with TV host Chris Matthews

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Chris Matthews, MSNBC host of his program, "Hardball," said at a Nov. 8 National Press Club Headliners Book Rap that photos of crowds saluting the train bearing Kennedy’s body to Washington after his 1968 assassination inspired Matthews's new book, "Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit."

“These are poor people,” he said of the whites and African-Americans lining the train tracks. “They got nothing. And they’re saluting him in this affectionate patriotism... this amazing respect. That’s all gone. The chance of those two crowds getting together politically is gone.”

Matthews said Kennedy was the “runt” of the family, who grew up ignored by his father and overshadowed by his taller, naturally elegant brothers. “He’s the guy who really had to work on himself,” Matthews said. “That’s why it was a challenge to find him, and I wanted to find him. I spent a lot of time looking for him.”

What he found was a sweet guy whose favorite people were cops, waitresses, and firefighters, and who went into the Navy as an enlisted man rather than an officer. “What grabbed me about Bobby,” he said, “was that he was the one guy in all the liberal Democrats who said hello to the cops in the morning when he came to work.”

When Club President Jeff Ballou, who moderated the event, asked Matthews to tell him one thing he hadn’t known about Bobby Kennedy, Matthews replied it was his close emotional ties with former Sen.Joseph McCarthy,R-Wisc. Matthews noted that Kennedy had worked as legal counsel for McCarthy’s U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for six months before resigning in 1953 after a dispute. Yet he often visited McCarthy who, after his censure by the U.S. Senate in 1954, slipped into profound alcoholism, and he quietly attended McCarthy’s 1957 funeral though it would have cost Kennedy a lot of votes if word had gotten out. “Bobby would look out for people with no hope,” Matthews said.

Matthews vividly contrasted politics in the time of Bobby Kennedy to politics today. “Trump has found a way to work the divisions in this country,” he said. “He finds an issue and pulls it apart.”

As for the Democrats, Matthews said that making fun of the poor, working-class white guy — which started with the character Archie Bunker in the popular 1970s show "All in the Family" — has cost the party a great many votes. “The meritocracy loves to get together and celebrate they’re all Ivy Leaguers, they’re all brilliant, they’ve made a lot of money and they’re big in show business and look down on the working class. Guess what? The little people got the message. They don’t think much of us.”

One of Kennedy’s most compelling moments was the night Kennedy broke the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to an African-American crowd in Indianapolis that seemed so threatening the police refused to provide Kennedy with protection. Standing on the back of a flatbed truck, speaking from the heart, Kennedy “was wrestling in a vulnerable way to say to people, I’m a human being and you are too,” Matthews said. Kennedy said, “Let’s try to make an effort." That was my favorite phrase he used in that whole speech. Make an effort. That’s all you can do,” Matthews said.