40 years ago today Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the world turned into a darker, meaner place in the decades that followed.
As a young student at Columbia University – off for the summer — I was to join the RFK campaign staff the following week. The spring of 1968 had been exhilarating and tumultuous.
Gene McCarthy was running an energetic anti-War campaign against the carnage in Vietnam. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April. Students were protesting all over the country and the world.
In March, Bobby Kennedy, with great anguish, decided to contest the nomination of a powerful sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Facing angry crowds wherever he went, and on the verge of losing the Wisconsin Primary, Johnson declared that he would not seek re-election. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his candidacy, but declined to enter the primaries, relying on party bosses to deliver the needed delegates.
In the last week of May, McCarthy, and his army of idealistic young people, students, and intellectuals, astonishingly beat Kennedy in the Oregon Primary. The results of the June California primary would decide whether Kennedy’s quest for the nomination was at all viable. Robert Kennedy was relying on the more traditional voting blocs of the excluded — Latinos, Blacks, and working class and poor whites.
On the night of the California primary, I stayed up until 3 AM waiting on the final results. After Kennedy’s victory speech, I dozed off in a contented sleep. Minutes later, a commotion on television woke me up. Kennedy had been shot in the head. Nobody knew anything, but everybody knew everything. The nightmares began. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stay awake. I kept waking up thinking it was all a dream….. but the television was still on…. He was shot in the head…..He was shot in the head….. over and over again … until he finally died 26 hours later.
The images of Kennedy lying in a pool of his own blood in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen are forever seared into my brain.
Is it possible that the act of one mad man could so drastically alter the course of history?
With the hindsight of 40 years, I can clearly see how different the world would have been had Bobby Kennedy lived. His assassination was even more significant, and ruinous, than the deaths of his brother, John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King Jr.
Kennedy’s untimely death came at a time when the world was on the cusp of transformative change — between Cold War enemies and post Cold War non-violence, between authoritarian societies and social and political justice —– and much of that change was stalled in the US for decades to come.
In the five years after his brother was shot, RFK had witnessed a society in turmoil. The success of the Civil Rights movement ….. and the hope that it had begotten … inspired and empowered students all over the world…. Evil – in the form of racism, sexism, cold war colonialism — could be challenged …. and defeated… and it was our duty, as the children of a prosperous society, to question everything.
A Global uprising of exhilarating hope — that change was possible — spread to students round the world — amplified by television images and electronic media reports as never before. The protests leapt from country to country like wildfires feeding on each other.
It was the time of the Prague Spring and, later that summer, there were massive protests against Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia. There were student demonstrations in Poland (against Soviet domination), Italy, Germany, and Mexico (against a feudal ruling class), to name a few. In France, 40 million students and workers went on strike for the entire month of May, protesting the Algerian war and worker injustices.
And Robert Kennedy — a compassionate Catholic already appalled by injustices towards the disenfranchised — was inspired by the possibilities. He picked up the torch and rhetoric of the times: “Let us not have tired answers.”
“Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream of things that never were and say why not.”
Kennedy was the perfect messenger, the royal heir, who could bridge the divide between the old world and the newly emerging one. He had strong ties to the traditional Democratic Party machine that had elected his brother and yet, was able to harness the energy, anger and hope that the post-WW II generation — the largest ever — was producing.
RFK was a rare mix of radical compassionate ideas…. somewhat conservative personal values…… self sacrifice, self discipline, stoicism and patriotism, rooted in moral conviction, but he was also perfectly in tune with his times. He had a perpetual sense of outrage at the racial, political, and social injustices that were crippling our country.
For most political observers there is no question that Bobby would have won the nomination. After winning the California primary, RFK was a scant 108 delegates behind Humphrey. He was picking up momentum, sucking the air from the McCarthy crusade. McCarthy supporters would have united with the Kennedy delegates. Kennedy had a unifying idealism, that would have brought the party together and probably even won the support of the machine politicians like Mayor Daley.
And Kennedy would have also beaten a flawed and awkward Richard Nixon.
As it happened, the chaos and violence of that summer’s Chicago Democratic convention triggered a backlash that insured Nixon’s narrow victory over Humphrey. Nixon’s trump card was a “Secret” plan to end the war.
But despite Nixon’s “Secret Plan,” the Vietnam War continued on for another seven years, at a cost of 38,000 more young American lives.
The nasty Nixon era was followed by a dreary progression of conservative, uninspiring leaders — Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Bush.
The grand dreams and hopes of 1968 were gone. Almost immediately after the spring assassinations, the movements that had sprouted in the sixties began to splinter…and parts turned violent. The civil rights movement spawned the Black Liberation Front and thuggish elements of the Black Panthers. Some SDS fringe groups evolved into the occasionally violent Weathermen.
But if Robert F. Kennedy had lived…….. It is an irresistible, tantalizing, and admittedly unanswerable question.
Nixon would have faded away. George McGovern would not have been nominated in 1972; the Democratic Party would not have splintered. Jimmy Carter would not have been elected president in 1976.
Kennedy would have brought us to a golden age of justice, judicious legislation, a compassionate Supreme Court. Nixon and Ford nominated and confirmed five conservative Supreme Court Justices.
Kennedy would have been more supportive of the environmental movement (The Kyoto treaty would have been signed), the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement.
Kennedy’s aide and speechwriter, Peter Edelman, has said that there is no question that RFK would have negotiated an early end to the Vietnam War by 1969 and worked hard toward racial reconciliation and the narrowing of the income gap at home.
Kennedy would have adopted a wiser, more restrained foreign policy, (more like the advanced Europeans countries of today) and would not have felt the need to aggressively bully the rest of the world.
With a calming of the international waters — and abandonment of the belief that our great military might and wealth could impose an American solution to every international problem — foreign relations would have been far less tumultuous.
The American Embassy in Iran might not have been seized; the oil crisis and the recessions of the seventies and eighties would have been milder, without the additional seven years of crippling Vietnam War debt.
We would have developed a different, easier relationship with the rest of the world. Gentler, not so overbearing.
RFK has a continuing extraordinary hold on our imagination, not because he was a martyr, but because he, (and his brother) represented a hope…..
The Golden years that might have been ….. continue to haunt us.
If Kennedy had lived, I don’t believe that we would be in Iraq today, nor do I believe that 9/11 would have happened. I believe that we would have a better, more admired, safer country, a more humane country, a more generous society. We were cheated out of the chance to see how his ideas and dreams would have played out….
RFK was not a perfect man, none of us is, but he was the right man … at the right time and would have moved us gracefully into a new era. Bobby never failed us.
He never grew old. He never sold out. Instead, he opened up the vision for the future…of course he was denied the opportunity to lead us there ….
But he showed us the way. His legacy lives on, albeit slowly.
“….The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” — Edward M. Kennedy.
[Cross posted at Huffington Post]