THE LAST CAMPAIGN: ROBERT F. KENNEDY AND 82 DAYS THAT INSPIRED AMERICA, by Thurston Clarke, Henry Holt, 321 pages, $25

Because the country finds itself in the middle of a presidential campaign, this interpretive history of the candidacy of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 is especially timely.

When Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination about a year and a half ago, he was criticized for his lack of experience, and it seemed to many analysts that he had little chance of winning.

Very few people in 1968 gave Kennedy even a slight chance. The same was true of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D. Minn., except he was almost completely unknown. Both Kennedy and McCarthy were running against an incumbent president of their own party, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon was getting closer to taking the Republican nomination.

Then Johnson responded to his detractors about the futility of the Vietnam War and announced he would not be a candidate for re-election.

It completely changed the dynamics of the campaign, although the Democratic establishment began talking about Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice president, as a possible successor. The only problem with that was Humphrey did not announce in time to run in any primaries. His hope hinged on getting the party bosses to support him.

Clarke's book proceeds to trace Kennedy's quixotic but lively campaign — not in every state as we have seen happen this year — but in a few selected primaries that he hoped would give him a leg up on delegates to the convention. So Kennedy campaigned relentlessly, often changing his tactics based on current events and reactions he received in public rallies.

Kennedy favored a people-to-people campaign, in which he constantly pressed the flesh, stood in the back of a convertible during slow motorcades where people could reach in and grab him or even pull him out of the car. Once they got him, they took souvenirs, ripping off his suit coat, tearing his shirt and pulling off his shoes.

It was important, he said, that the people knew they could touch him, and touch him they did. The whole process exhausted him, and sometimes he was so tired that his hands shook, he slurred his speech and his eyes rolled back in his head. When that happened, a large bowl of chocolate ice cream smothered in chocolate syrup saved the day.

Kennedy, unlike Obama, was not an orator, not gifted in public speaking. He spoke slowly and often stammered, something that endeared him to many people who saw him as remarkably human. He was handsome, his hair was a tad too long, but otherwise he seemed uncomfortable on the stump.

But his was a moral crusade. He talked not only about the Vietnam War, which he had helped engineer as a protege of his brother, John F. Kennedy, but he worried about the poor bearing the burden of the war. He worried about poverty — and until John Edwards took up his argument, no other presidential candidate has talked about it since.

He spoke out against student deferments and argued for a volunteer military.

He identified strongly with blacks, American Indians and other minorities. He easily and sincerely connected with children. He never kissed them like other politicians, but he gently brushed his hand against their faces and talked to them, sometimes at length. He struck up such a good relationship with Christopher Pretty Boy, a child he met at the reservation outside of Rapid City, S.D., that he even called his wife, Ethel, and told her he was bringing the boy and his sister home for the summer.

But the boy was killed a few months later.

Kennedy also carried on conversations with crowds, sometimes arguing with them, trying to talk them into embracing the moral courage that was his hallmark. When he talked to all-white audiences, he told them to be sensitive toward blacks. When he talked at universities, he scolded them for eluding service to the country while blacks bore the brunt of the burden.

Clarke captures the Kennedy campaign in unusually graphic terms, quoting people along motorcade routes, quoting conversations Kennedy had with his staff and leading political figures. He makes the campaign come alive again, a strange thing in light of how much things have changed. This is political storytelling at its zenith.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com