Commentary Magazine

A Matter of Conscience

Last autumn my wife and I made an early return from a delayed honeymoon trip to Europe in order to register for the national elections, a detail we engaged in on differing levels of seriousness: for she was registering in order to vote, and I was registering as the first step in my usual principled position—which was to not vote at all. (Not to deny that in the confines of the booth principle, on occasion, hasn't failed me—followed consistently by the candidates I voted for.)

This election was different, however. I had to vote for President (whatever my pacifist friends said, I could not see Lyndon Johnson as Tweedledee), and I wanted to vote for or against Kennedy for Senator—I couldn't decide which; I only knew it was important to take a stand. My original instincts were anti-Kennedy: he was, I thought, ruthless and arrogant. My later instincts were pro-Kennedy: he had, I thought, a lot of potential. My follow-up instincts were anti-Kennedy: he read the mail of people he put on trial—(anyone who made a civil liberties hero out of Roy Cohn was lacking, at least, in taste). My later follow-up instincts were pro-Kennedy: after all, it was Roy Cohn. And so it went. One day there was the image of Bobby as Joe McCarthy; the next day, the image of Bobby on the phone solving our urban crisis. It's a new Bobby, insider-friends-of-mine insisted. Remembering the new Nixon, I wondered. . . .

Still, whenever I saw his opponent on television, looking like a loaf of white bread and running under the assumed name of Jacob Javits, I knew Kenneth Keating was impossible. So wavering toward Kennedy I would switch to another channel only to see the former Attorney General up in Harlem on a bandstand crying out to the crowd: “All right, let's everybody sing—‘We Shall Over-co-ome, We Shall Over-Co-ome.’”

I studied various versions of Keating's voting record, put them all together and discovered absolutely nothing. I gave up the effort: since it had never occurred to me that Keating was a liberal before, why should I work on the problem now? The reason was Bobby. I was looking for some excuse not to vote for him. And I was troubled about it. I had seen him in person once since the assassination—and he looked like Raskolnikov. His eyes were fogged, his smile vacant, his clothes looked like some other boy's. Dare you make him a loser twice, I wondered? Put that way, the answer was obvious. I discussed the matter with friends. They didn't know either.

In the meantime, the ad hoc mailings had begun: letters asking me to sign up with at least one organization whose affiliations might appeal to my sympathies: Democrats for Keating, Independents for Keating, Independent-Democrats for Keating, Young Socialists for Keating, Trotskyites for Keating; and from the other side: Publishers and Writers for Kennedy, Artists and Scientists for Kennedy, Movie-fans of the Late James Dean for Kennedy.

Ads, with long lists of names, that began: “We, a group of troubled Pulitzer Prize winners—” filled the back pages of the New York Times. Often they were names I admired. Was I willing to go against the wishes of John Steinbeck? I really didn't know. Seeking information, I started going to the parties.


Every political candidate gives parties—or has his friends give parties: his Independent Friends, his Non-Partisan Friends, sometimes just his Citizen Friends. At these parties there are pretty girls, celebrities, and booze, the quality and variety of which depends on the finances—or degree of commitment—of the friends. To these parties are invited those who have not yet signed up—so if he likes parties, a man would be a fool to sign up too quickly. During the course of one's booze-downing and star-and-girl-ogling, the parties turn serious and the guest speaker, sometimes the candidate himself, is introduced to make his pitch. In the case of Keating, the pitch always had to do with the startling similarity of his and Senator Javits's voting records. In the case of Robert Kennedy, the pitch had to do with how, during the 1960 campaign, everyone had called his slain brother ruthless too.

The aim of the more publicized parties in the Kennedy-Keating campaign was to enlist that group that politicians and newspapermen refer to as intellectuals: in most cases meaning people connected with show business. (Paddy Chayefsky demanded to know what Bobby would do to make it safe for our wives to go around the corner without having to take a taxi. . . . Leonard Bernstein suggested that victory was clearly Kennedy's if only his team would publicize the fact that Herbert Brownell was Keating's campaign manager. . . .)

Most Kennedy defenders based their testimony on private sources of information: “I used to think he was that way too, until I got to know him—”; or: “Sure, he used to be that way, but he's grown. Yesterday he called Walter Jenkins. That's the kind of a guy he is.”

The Keating partisans stuck close to Javits. “Javits, Javits, Javits,” they said. And when Bobby's name came up: “McCarthy, McCarthy, McCarthy.” “All right, don't vote for Bobby,” a female Kennedy-show-biz-campaign-worker told me, “but don't vote for Keating either; that's not a real protest. A real protest is to vote for neither one.”

At a Democrats-for-Keating party most of the guests turned out to be Republicans. “But we're voting for Johnson,” they told me; tit for tat. Gore Vidal, one of the hosts, failed to show—being in Rome at the time. David Susskind, another host, advised Keating on the state of the campaign. The Senator treated him with the deference due a star, Susskind being nearly his only one.

The dearth of celebrities at the Keating parties bothered me; Kennedy's affairs really did much better. With whom did one prefer to go—the question insistently asked itself—which of these candidates had the potential for better parties in Washington? After several more parties this confusion was supplanted by guilt. After a good time, after lots of free booze, after shaking hands with Jacqueline Kennedy, is there not a tacit commitment? If so, could I in good conscience continue to attend Keating affairs, continue to drink his sponsors' booze, and continue to be in another part of the house when the Senator came in, so as to avoid the embarrassing problem of applause? (At his first party I stared straight ahead, both hands on my glass, uncompromisingly independent. The Senator caught my eye; I felt I had hurt him.)

Still, I continued to worry about Bobby's ruthlessness, “You see, his main problem is he has no ethics,” the female-Kennedy-show-biz-campaign worker confided in me, “but that's because he's not Jewish. Now that he has Jewish advisers, they'll teach him ethics. Some of his people tried to get me to do something unethical last week and I refused. I said, ‘I’d rather quit the campaign than do that; it's against everything I believe.' You've got to tell them things like that. That's the way they learn.”

Despite her reassurances I still felt doubt. Doubt, guilt, and the subtle building of pressure: “Well, here you are again, Jules,” hosts cruelly grinned at me, “didn't we sign you up two parties ago?” Rumors circulated that I really wasn't interested in the issues, I just liked parties. Hints of reprisals were dropped: “We'll remember who our friends are when it comes time for the real parties in Washington—”

So after interminable hours of internal debate, late-night phone calls to friends and confessors, complex analyses of the situation (and its effect on our future) with my wife, I at last gave my name to be used in a New York Times ad on behalf of Artists and Writers for Kennedy; and I gave my name to be used in a New York Times ad on behalf of Democrats for Keating. So long as they're happy. . . .

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