ideal candidate: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on the campaign trail
What I Learned from Bobby Kennedy
With an eye on the present, a child of 1968 looks back on a pivotal day in a pivotal summer
By Stephen Kessler
Ted Kennedy's brain tumor is the same kind that killed my father, and the doctor who did the surgery on my dad was one of the team of neurosurgeons called in to try to save Robert F. Kennedy's life the night he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. That L.A. landmark had other primal associations for me--taking a date to see the Kingston Trio at the Cocoanut Grove in my junior year of high school, or being introduced to Willie Mays in one of its cottages where a friend and I were taken by someone who knew someone who knew the immortal Giants outfielder. This means, according to a certain paranoid narcissistic logic, that I'm related by five degrees of separation to all of the above.
Ted Kennedy, my father (whose name was Jack), Bobby Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, the Kingston Trio, Willie Mays--these are just a few of the emblematic dramatis personae of my 1960s-addled imagination, whose 40-year flashbacks have been set off by this year's many historic commemorations. My father left this world on July 19, 1983. Willie Mays is still with us at the age of 77, but his greatest plays are long gone, like the boy I was who witnessed them in awe. Most difficult to accept, four decades later, Robert Kennedy was taken in his prime at a time when the United States, and I personally, needed him most.
On June 4, 1968, the day of Bobby Kennedy's death, I was about to graduate from college in New York, and had plans to return to California to attend graduate school in the fall at UC-Santa Cruz. I had arranged with friends in Berkeley to rent a house together for the summer, and got there in time for the tear-gas police riots and sexual chaos of that city in the vanguard of antiwar and countercultural agitation. The sense of dread, excitement and depression was an incoherent mix of emotions that I don't believe was mine exclusively. Amid the festive protests and the militant fucking, the rock music and the revolutionary rhetoric, the burning cities and the burning joints--self-medication for those unable to deal with the darkest realities descending on the nation, most gravely the unending nightmare of the Vietnam War--amid all this, it was hell to be young and entering what was supposed to be the real world.
Staying as stoned as possible in a Berkeley at its most berserk, at a time when I might have been looking ahead to a budding adulthood and a UC Regents Fellowship welcoming me into the parentally approved respectability of an academic career, it's hard to remember ever being more distressed than I was that summer. Just a couple of months earlier, for those of us young and liberal enough to be hopeful that Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for re-election meant that Robert Kennedy would win the presidency, it was possible to envision the realization of our ideals in the body politic. A Kennedy restoration meant that what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" might be mobilized to end the war, bring the races together in mutual respect, defeat poverty and invigorate the collective imagination. Bobby Kennedy was one leader who still might inspire multitudes with a fresh sense of the possible.
From his early days as an attack-dog anticommunist assistant to Joe McCarthy, Kennedy had evolved through his brother's assassination and subsequent cultural upheavals of the mid-1960s into a more humble, more moral, more visionary politician--a man imbued with a certain tragic wisdom--but a politician nonetheless, and that was part of his strength. He was tough-minded about the workings of Washington power and he seemed to think the machinery could be put to the service of higher purposes. The movie Bobby a couple of years ago (not a great film but admirably ambitious) made me cry because the news clips of Kennedy's speeches--especially after the murder of Martin Luther King--were a heart-crushing reminder of the optimism he engendered and the utter devastation of his death.
It was too late to lose our innocence--that had been lost less than five years before in Dallas--but Bobby Kennedy's murder triggered, in me at least, total hopelessness. June 4, 1968, was in some ways more disorienting and disheartening than Sept. 11, 2001. The killing of this second Kennedy meant there would be no political figurehead, no president with the intelligence and passion and compassion and strategic shrewdness to lead us out of the war and through the exciting yet also deeply troubling confusion of a culture in turmoil. Kennedy embodied an engaged pragmatism, not exactly countercultural but experimental enough to dare to do the right thing and do it creatively.
He and many less-Establishment figures, activists who challenged the system itself, set an example and inspired many of those currently trying to hold the line against the most destructive forces of Bushism. These idealistic pragmatists in human rights groups, environmental movements, law firms still defending the Constitution, etc., prove that some people, sparked early on with the fire of ideas of justice and fairness, are still in the game and refuse to be defeated even when things look bleakest.
When I think of public figures who've tried to make a positive difference, no one comes to mind more readily than Robert Kennedy. I cried in the movie about his assassination--and afterward sat in my car in the parking lot sobbing until I could regain composure enough to drive--because of the sense of tragic waste that came with his loss, and the memory of the misery I felt from that moment when prospects for any improvement in the public realm looked utterly grim, and the increasing feeling in subsequent months that there was nothing to be done to redeem this country so we might as well just blow our minds and kiss our asses goodbye.
Forty years on, in the hopeful heat of another electoral season, many survivors of 1968 are very cautious in their optimism, knowing how suddenly the tectonic plates of history can shift. Barack Obama's candidacy, as some have noted, is reminiscent of Robert Kennedy's in its combination of political skill, instinct, intelligence, eloquence, idealism, charisma and evident sincerity. Obama has inspired millions of citizens who weren't even born in 1968 and are perhaps more realistic than the I-have-a-dreamy students and earnest hippies of my generation. My 27-year-old daughter and her boyfriend have told me that they are for Obama but they don't have illusions about him--as some of us did about Bobby Kennedy--as any kind of political messiah. Still, his realistic engagement with the monumental problems of the moment, his poise, his cool and can-do attitude, suggest that the status quo may be improvable.
Oddly enough, Ted Kennedy's illness is also a reminder of what can be done within and despite the system. His possible disappearance from the Senate invokes his near-half-century record of defending progressive principles that makes him in some ways a far more consequential political actor--in terms of actual accomplishment--than either of his older brothers. Ted Kennedy, at first the least impressive of the three, has proven himself a major mensch in taking the best of his brothers' legacies and making a significant material contribution. Whatever his character flaws, he emerges in the end as a figure of near-heroic stature.
Robert Kennedy never had that chance. His martyrdom makes him a noble historic personage and someone who touched people personally as the last hope we had of a moral recovery from a war at least as horrific as the one now destroying Iraq and ruining the lives of so many sent there to fight. It is unfair to Barack Obama, even should he be elected, to burden him with the expectation that he can effectively turn things around. The government, the nation and the planet are too far gone at this point to expect much good news, even in a best-case scenario. And anyone who's not an idiot fears the worst--the most mentionable manifestations of which might be, say, war with Iran or the lengthy tenure of a McCain Supreme Court.
Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, bitterly clinging to a sentimental secular humanism in the naive belief that humanity is not a total loss, but what better time than a presidential election campaign to be crazy enough to hope for the best and work to make it happen? Things are likely to get much worse than they are before they get better--if ever--and optimism may be the opiate of "elitists," but from the heights of despair you can sometimes see in the distance something that moves you to keep on. It's never too late, as Kennedy suggested, quoting Tennyson, to seek a newer world.
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