There is a Radio Four programme, Great Lives, in which prominent people nominate their “hero” and then discuss the hero with an “expert” — usually the hero’s biographer — with the one-time Tory MP Matthew Parris chairing the discussion.
Last week Ken Livingstone — former Mayor and future Lord Red Ken — nominated his hero. Guess who? Livingstone once contributed an introduction to a hagiography of Gerry Healy, the “Trotskyist” who sold himself and the organisation he controlled, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, to Arab governments. Here was a chance to bring the good sides and the good memories of the late, not much lamented, and still much-execrated Healy to a wide audience.
But no. Livingstone’s “hero” is not, after all, the unprincipled little scoundrel Healy. His hero is... Robert Kennedy!
Kennedy was the younger brother and hatchet-man for US president John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in November 1963. With the Kennedys it was always a triumph of style over substance.
Kennedy was not much of a president in terms of things done — his vice-president Lyndon Johnson, when he became president on Kennedy’s assassination, did a great deal more. Like George W Bush, Kennedy didn't become president honestly. He beat Richard Nixon by cheating on votes, organised for him by his rich father Joe Kennedy and the mafia.
Robert Kennedy became his brother's Attorney General. He had been one of the lawyers for the demagogic red-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and was decidedly on the right of politics.
What did Ken Livingstone admire in him? After his ejection from office when Johnson became president, Robert Kennedy went through a crisis, including a crisis of his once-fervent Catholicism, and re-thought a few things. He re-emerged in mainstream politics as a liberal.
It was this move from doctrinaire right-wing certainties to a more pragmatic, more humane, and more human approach to politics that the one-time “Red Ken” admired. He saw himself in it, he confided.
“Thirty years ago” he had “dogmatically” believed in a completely socialist economy. Experience had enlightened him, as it had Robert Kennedy. In other words, the future Lord Red Ken's hero remains Ken and those in whose lives he sees a flattering reflection of his marvellous self.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy jumped on an anti Vietnam war, anti Johnson bandwagon set moving by Eugene McCarthy, and was assassinated by a young Arab in the course of his campaign. Good career move: now people so minded, like the political squeezed-lemon Ken Livingstone, the once upon a time Red Ken, can see Kennedy as a lost leader, the foully murdered liberal US president that never was.