Oh, God, no. Not another Kennedy.
For those who remember, tell me that wasn’t your first thought when you woke up on the morning of June 5, 1968 — 50 years ago today — and heard that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
That was my high school freshman brain talking. It was only afterward — and for the next 50 years — that the damage the act of one demented person could cause began to dawn on me. But at the time, all I could think of was that he was JFK’s brother, and only he was capable of carrying the torch.
The night before, Bobby had won the California primary, and I was sure he would be our next president. I didn’t understand delegate counts. I knew Nixon was running as a Republican, but wasn’t he the most notorious two-time loser in the history of politics? First the presidency in 1960 and then, two years later, as governor of California? You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore?
I was sure Bobby would kick Dick Nixon around some more.
This was the ultimate case of completing unfinished business, wasn’t it? Bobby was going to pick up where Jack left off, and bring the country back to where it had been prior to Nov. 22, 1963, instead of the hot mess it had become.
Bobby got a late start. He entered the race once he realized that Eugene McCarthy could put up competitive numbers in the New Hampshire primary against a sitting president (Lyndon Johnson) whose most prolific skill seemed to be knowing how to work the levers of power. Johnson’s “great society,” which included getting his predecessor’s civil rights legislation passed, was done in by that other JFK legacy: Vietnam.
Now, four years after winning a resounding landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, LBJ couldn’t even make a strong showing within his own party. It was like an old B-movie western. In rode Bobby, on the white horse, to save us from all we had become.
Only Sirhan Sirhan had other ideas. After addressing his supporters at the Ambassador, Kennedy took a shortcut through the kitchen to get to his next destination, which, for all I know, was to be a good night’s sleep. But Sirhan intercepted him and, well, you know the rest.
A little over a day later, on June 6, at 1:44 a.m. PDT, he died.
I wanted him to win so badly. I might have only been going on 15, but I knew what was happening. I had cousins old enough to be inducted into the Army and sent over to Vietnam. It would only be four more years before I, perhaps, could be called to go.
I saw news footage of unrest in the streets, both from anti-war protesters and civil rights demonstrators. The country was divided, then as now, only the divisions were generational more than ideological. Our parents either fought in, or lived through, World War II and they had a different view than we did. They defeated tyrannical fascists and Nazis, and, quite naturally, saw war as a noble endeavor. Many of us saw it as pointless.
It was Bobby Kennedy who seemed most anxious to dive in and start strewing things around until he got to the bottom of it. It was Bobby Kennedy who spoke most eloquently when, only two months earlier, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. It was Bobby Kennedy who drew massive crowds, and had the same youthful vigor his brother had. McCarthy seemed too, I don’t know, elitist? Hubert Humphrey was part of the Johnson administration — a decent, moral man, but tainted by the stigma of being part of the establishment that gave us Vietnam.
Nixon? Please. He just seemed to be everyone’s grouchy next-door neighbor who would call the police on you if you lit off firecrackers on July 4.
It’s been written a lot this week that Bobby Kennedy represented hope, and I’m sure he did. Someone else wrote that Bobby was the last angry liberal — that today’s left-leaning politicians approach campaigns in a Rodney King “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” way whereas Bobby loved the fight and was called “ruthless.”
I’m sure they’re right too. Liberals don’t seem to understand what “take no prisoners” means.
But none of that made much of a difference to me. Bobby was a Kennedy. He was a direct, genealogical link to the last time my almost-15-year-old brain recalled things making sense in this country. He could get us back to that place prior to 1963, when he and his brother helped stare down Khrushchev and Castro, and there was some humor and joie de vivre in government (I didn’t know that term back then, but that’s what it was!!).
Bobby Kennedy was going to be president, and we were all going to live happily ever after. And in an instant, it was all taken away.
I realize, of course, that this is as much fantasy as anything else. He could have lost. Or, he could have won, and seen things get worse. Maybe he’d have been the embodiment of Stephen King’s dystopian society at the end of the book “11/22/63.”
I’m going with my fantasies. Bobby Kennedy was going to be president and all was going to be right with the world. There would be peace in the valley.
“Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?'”