Sometimes the news strikes like a jab to the solar plexus, leaving you gasping for air and knowing that your life will never again be the same. For me such a moment came in the spring of 1968, lying on my living room floor in Indianapolis, where I was going to college.
Robert F. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic presidential primary, news that I received with great satisfaction. I had volunteered for the Kennedy campaign in the Indiana primary, where “we” also won. And now, as the senator said, “It was on to Chicago.” Back then it was expected that Chicago would host a political convention when the Democrats came to town, not a riot.
I had gotten comfortable with a pillow on the floor — I don’t think I had a couch — and I was drifting off to sleep. Because of the time difference it was very late in Indiana. Then I heard the television commentators talking about Kennedy being shot and I wondered why, at this moment, they would once again review the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I opened my eyes and saw Bobby in black and white on the floor, and everything was different.
Fifty years later, we tend to talk about 1968 as though it was a single experience. But everybody had their own ’68. The first half of mine was spent thinking Bobby was the solution. The second half — and really my life ever since — was spent thinking there is no solution.
Kennedy was an unusual political phenomenon, perhaps unique in U.S. history. He was a part of the political establishment, an establishment that had been reluctant and too slow to act on civil rights and that had led us into war in Vietnam. Though Kennedy had a distant Irish immigrant background, he was not a man of the people. He was wealthy, and at least those of us from New England (in my case, Hartford, Conn.) were well aware that his money derived from his father, who was a big-time crook. And yet a lot of everyday people identified with RFK.
Kennedy was an unusual political phenomenon, perhaps unique in U.S. history.
I only met him once. It was during the Indiana primary campaign, and he happened to be sitting next to me at a restaurant called Sam’s Subway. Sam’s was the place to hang out in Indianapolis, and it was inevitable that along with college students, the candidates and campaign workers would show up there.
I turned and introduced myself as a volunteer on his campaign (I hadn’t done much), and he shook my hand, smiled and said something predictable in his famous accent. People in Indiana called it a Boston accent, but my father and many of my relatives were from Boston and they didn’t sound anything like him. In fact, he had a Cape Cod accent, the accent of the yachting crowd, of aristocrats.
I got that, but something else struck me, even though I was only 19. He seemed like a kid. He was eating ice cream — he was famous for loving ice cream — and then there was the way he still went by the name Bobby. Even though he was considerably older than I was, I had the sense that Bobby was coming of age with me.
Kennedy embodied the extraordinary political transformation of my generation. We were challenging the beliefs of our parents, growing impatient that the civil rights movement had not accomplished enough, and that the country had succumbed to mindless materialism while people were going hungry. I woke up every morning in those days infuriated by the mass murder we were unleashing in Vietnam.
And suddenly here was this patrician politician having the same thoughts. He turned against the war that had been fostered by men he knew and admired; he’d named his children after two of them, W. Averell Harriman and Gen. Maxwell Taylor. He traveled to the South and was appalled by institutionalized segregation. He met with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and supported the struggle of these immigrant laborers (though he never could pronounce ¡Viva la huelga!). He even spoke out against the American obsession with economic growth and denounced the gross national product as a measure of the strength of America.
I stood with hundreds of others at a Kennedy rally in downtown Indianapolis when he broke the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed. It has been recorded that Kennedy stopped a riot in Indianapolis with his compassionate words that night. But to be honest, those deeply saddened people around me did not seem in a mood for rioting. He said he had experienced this kind of pain before, that for some reason this kind of violence was American, but he left us with a sense that he would go on and so would we all. Two months later he was dead.
No politician quite like Bobby Kennedy has come along since. Had he lived, I am almost certain the Vietnam War would have ended years, and many thousands of lives, earlier. Perhaps Jim Crow could have been attacked in such a way that African Americans today would not still be fighting for equal treatment, and even, again, the right to vote. We are still using military might and horrific violence to bend small, poor nations to our will; it has become almost a way of life for us as a nation. Gun violence is an epidemic, and there is not the political will to curb it.
Today we ask the question: What if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been shot? Would Bobby, could Bobby have put an end to our worst instincts? With his rare combination of establishment credentials and anti-establishment thinking, he might have accomplished a lot. But on that June night in 1968, I came to understand that in this country where anyone could be shot dead at any moment, our demons were deep within us. There would be no magical leaders to save us from ourselves.
Mark Kurlansky is the author of 31 books, including “1968: The Year that Rocked the World” and the just-published “Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas.”
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