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November/December 2006 Message from
I'm writing this two days after the November
2006 mid-term elections that turned into a Perfect Storm for
the Democrats (or against the Republicans), but I appreciate
the fact that - a) you may be reading this as late as December
and will have much more interesting things on your mind than
these old elections and b) you're as sick of politics as the
rest of us after the orgy of attack ads all around the nation
- so before you quit reading this and flee, please know that
the bulk of what I want to talk about here will deal with
an event that occurred more than 38 years ago.
I will say about the elections just past (and
about the firing of Donald Rumsfeld that was the first after-effect
of the huge Democratic victory), that it’s not only
Democrats who feel a sense of relief this week. Many of us
who sometimes express a pox-on-both-your-houses sentiment
toward the extremists in both political parties agree with
commentator David Brooks that this election was a long overdue
expression of opinion by political moderates who still make
up the majority in this country. The central message was do
something about the war in Iraq, our policy there is not acceptable
in its current form, but there were many other messages
from moderate America as well – on immigration not being
a problem that will be solved by extreme measures in either
direction, about a demand to end the Culture Wars in this
country as well as the Iraq war, and especially about calling
a stop to the politics of arrogance and polarization.
Many of us also agree with Brooks that this is the end of
an era – the end of a monolithic conservative coalition
and overall conservative drift in politics (even during Clinton’s
era) that began in 1980 – but not yet the beginning
of a new era or coalition or clear direction in American
politics. That will be determined in 2008.
And that 2008 election campaign will occur precisely 40 years
after the events that are the real core of what I want to
talk to you about today.
I’m currently working on several projects, but one
of them is a novel called Titus. All of the events
in Titus take place during one week in March in 2003
(the week the U.S. invaded Iraq), in an isolated mountain
cabin, and deal with the life and memories of a 63-year old
poet, college professor, and sometimes mountain climber named
Titus Merwyn. Titus’s retreat from the world is interrupted
one March morning by the discovery in a snowdrift of a half-frozen
20-year-old woman who will only give her name (once she is
thawed out) as “JonBenét.” Titus has no
time for the irritating mystery of the young woman because
he’s never solved the mystery of why his 30-year-old
son Thomas had died in the fall of the Twin Towers at the
World Trade Center two years earlier. Thomas (he and his father
had not been speaking at the time of his death) had been a
successful environmental lawyer in Atlanta and no one –
not Thomas Merwyn’s wife, children, friends, or colleagues
– had any clue as to why the young man had flown to
New York the night before the terrorist attack and been in
Windows on the World at the moment the first plane hit the
tower. Only a censored news videotape of a man leaping to
his death, blown-up images suggest it was Thomas, and bone
fragments confirmed the totally illogical fact that poet Titus
Merwyn’s son had died at Ground Zero. So Titus –
who had retreated to his remote cabin the previous year –
has no time for a self-appointed mystery who calls herself
JonBenét and who says she will die if he sends her
back to civilization when the March blizzard ends.
But I get ahead of myself.
It’s one of Titus’s flashback memories that has
had me living in 1968 for several months now.
Titus Merwyn had met Robert F. Kennedy not through politics
but through RFK’s determination to climb Canada’s
previously unsummited Mt. Kennedy in 1965. The remote peak
had been named after Bobby Kennedy’s older brother shortly
after the 1963 assassination and the new senator from New
York thought he should be the first to climb it . . . despite
the fact that RFK had absolutely no mountaineering experience
and was afraid of heights. Once on the mountain, when Jim
Whittaker and Barry Prather – mountain climbers who
had summited Everest two years earlier in ’63 and who
had volunteered to get the rookie RFK up the mountain –
asked Kennedy what training he’d undergone for the climb,
the junior senator said, “Mostly climbing up and down
the stairs at home and shouting ‘Help!’”
In my novel, Titus is a 25-yr-old young college professor
who ends up on the Mt. Kennedy climb simply because a mountaineering
friend is going and they think it will be a junket. But it
turns out during the three-day climb that Robert Kennedy wants
to sit around the campfire – or camp stove at least
– and discuss the one thing that real mountain climbers
never really talk about: courage. Thus begins a relationship
that culminates in Titus joining RFK’s staff (along
with fiery young speechwriter Jeff Greenfield) during the
senator’s presidential bid in 1968.
Cut to Indianapolis, Indiana, on the evening of April 4,
Cut from my novel Titus to my own life experience,
such as it is.
April 4, 1968, was my 20th birthday. Both my parents had
died of cancer the year before but – but thanks to the
generosity of Wabash College and my willingness to work nights
and weekends (even though I had Saturday classes), I’d
managed to remain in college. I probably don’t have
to mention to most of you reading this, even those of you
much younger, that 1968 was an insane year in America: race
riots, the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, LBJ’s abdication
by vowing at the end of March not to run for reelection, the
polarization of not only voters but families and friends over
the war (the worst since the Civil War, according to many
historians), the “police riots” of the 1968 Democratic
Convention in Chicago that summer, the assassination of some
of the nation’s top political and moral leaders, including
Martin Luther King in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June
(all on the heels of the incredible trauma of JFK’s
assassination just five years earlier).
(And to those who sentimentalize it or want to talk to me
about love, peace, grok,Woodstock, and the good old days,
I say, in all sincerity, kiss my squirrel. 1968 sucked big
time. The only good thing about it was Apollo 8 circling
the moon on Christmas Eve.)
At any rate, my novel’s eponymous character Titus Merwyn
happened to be in Indianapolis on the cold, rainy evening
of April 4, 1968, and by great coincidence, so did I. Titus
had just been talked into taking a leave of absence from his
teaching at Kenyon College to work on RFK’s doomed campaign
as a speechwriter, even though Kennedy certainly didn’t
need another speechwriter. He had the late President Kennedy’s
top speechwriter, Ted Sorenson (whose written voice was all
wrong for Bobby Kennedy’s cadence and passions), historian
Arthur Schlesinger, savvy political operatives such as Adam
Walinsky and Peter Edelman, and even the young firebrand Jeff
Greenfield. Mostly my character Titus and RFK talked about
poetry, especially the Greeks (Titus’s one published
book – sales, 341 copies – had been an epic poem
about the 300 Spartans and the Greek idea of courage and shame)
and about Aeschylus.
I wasn’t working for Robert Kennedy on April 4, 1968.
A lowly sophomore at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana
(“the ninth circle of desolation” – Ezra
Pound, 1908), I’d helped set up Senator Eugene McCarthy’s
political operations in that part of Indiana. Like thousands
of other students that spring of 1968, I’d gotten “Clean
for Gene” (although I confess that I never got very
unclean, at least appearance-wise, in those wild and crazy
late 1960’s . . . I was always a noncomformist.)
The senator from Minnesota was the perfect symbolic anti-war
candidate in the autumn of 1967 and early primaries of 1968
– cool, ironic, intellectual, a poet in his own right,
unflappable, expendable. No other Democrat or Republican dared
run “against the war,” so Senator McCarthy’s
candidacy – assumed to be a token protest and symbolic
gesture – galvanized many of us.
Many had looked to Bobby Kennedy that previous autumn as
the war in Vietnam entered its intolerable stages, but Kennedy
was cautious, undecided, hesitant, and dithering – a
Hamlet without Hamlet’s eloquence or charisma.
In January of ’68, as real opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s
“stay the course” policies solidified around Senator
Eugene McCarthy’s symbolic protest run, RFK announced
that he would not oppose the sitting president “under
any conceivable circumstances.” Frank Mankiewitz, young
Senator Kennedy’s press secretary, had to tone that
down to “under any forseeable circumstances” but
that made no difference to the tens of thousands of us who
were ready to back an anti-war candidate. “To hell with
Bobby Kennedy,” was our opinion.
Helping to organize Gene McCarthy’s Indiana primary
run was fun for this college sophomore with an interest in
politics. Indiana was a very important primary in 1968, one
that Robert Kennedy had to win if he was to be a national
candidate. LBJ had withdrawn from the race but – in
his usual cruel way – had not yet endorsed his vice-president,
Hubert Humphrey, or allowed Humphrey to begin running. The
LBJ “surrogate candidate” on the ballot in that
Indiana primary was an old-style machine Democratic political
governor named Roger Brannigan. Delegates that went for Brannigan
would be LBJ’s to give away to his heir apparent –
or as Christopher Multisante says on “The Sopranos”,
the “hair apparent” – at the Democratic
Convention in Chicago that summer.
Our Gene McCarthy camp was a grassroots organization but
one with real teeth. And it was a hoot to set it up and help
We taught the young door-to-door canvassers how to step back
politely when someone came to the door and how not to argue,
no matter how stupid the person inside the door might be.
(When I was still canvassing, one fellow – complete
with his beer belly and wife-beater undershirt – came
to the door, can of Pabst still in his hand, and said “I
don’t know nothin’ about this Euuuu-gene McCarthy,
but I sure liked his brother Joe.” To which one answered
– “Great! We look forward to getting your vote,
For a huge Crawfordsville campaign rally that was covered
for almost two minutes on Walter Cronkite’s
CBS Evening News, we had the Budapest String Quartet warm
up the crowd for an hour. Not your usual candidate’s
backup group, that.
I even got to go out on a sort-of dinner date with Senator
McCarthy’s young niece Mary Beth (who the next year
married folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary
fame, if I’m not mistaken).
But the high point of my work for McCarthy during the ’68
Indiana primary occurred in March when Governor Brannigan
illegally ordered Indiana Highway Department crews –
on taxpayer time – to put up Brannigan (thus LBJ) campaign
signs along the state highways. After long days in class and
longer mornings and evenings on campaign work, my roommate
and I would drive the backroads of the state through the night,
uprooting the campaign signs, only to sell them to students
at various colleges around the state (DePauw, Purdue [moo-moo],
Butler University, Indiana University, even as far afield
as Notre Dame, for their dorm room decorations) and funnel
the money from the illicit sales into the McCarthy campaign
One night around 2 a.m. on a remote state highway, we were
pulled over by a stern-looking State Highway patrolman. In
my memory, he was wearing sunglasses . . . at two o’clock
in the morning. Even though our infraction was minor –
the trooper growled at us that one of the taillights was out
on my roommate Ken’s Triumph Spitfire – we were
intensely aware that there were about thirty-five VOTE FOR
BRANNIGAN signs sticking out of the small roadster’s
trunk, fresh dirt dripping from their stakes.
The state trooper swaggered around behind our little car,
looked at the purloined highway campaign signs – they
stuck out about three feet behind the Triumph and the taillight
wasn’t actually broken, just obscured by a hanging sign
– looked at us, looked at the signs again, looked at
us again, said “I’ll let y’all off with
a warning this time,” and then got back in his patrol
car and drove off.
I think we sold that batch of signs for about $150, all of
which went into the McCarthy campaign kitty.
It was while using some of that kitty-money to buy poster
paints on April Fool’s Day (the Indiana primary was
to be held on May 7, but the battle had been fully joined
by April 1) that I got some change back at the drugstore and
spent it on a copy of Robert F. Kennedy’s paperback,
To Seek a Newer World. I read the thing while lettering
and painting the largest GO GENE! banner the world had ever
seen. (I later saw the banner on primary election night TV
coverage from Oregon and California.) My fellow organizers
were not amused by me reading Kennedy while painting for McCarthy.
So it was that I ended up in Indianapolis on my 20th birthday
on April 4, 1968.
had actually crossed paths with Robert Kennedy before –
he’d come briefly to Crawfordsville and other towns
and cities where I was working for Senator McCarthy –
but I was there in the rain in the inner-city ghetto toughest
part of Indianapolis that night (I remember it as being over
my spring break from Wabash, but I could be wrong) because
I wanted to hear Kennedy speak.
Something about him – or at least about his book, which
I hoped he’d actually written – interested me.
One should remember that when Bobby Kennedy announced his
candidacy for the presidency on March 16, 1968, he had no
delegates, no support from any major American political figure,
a sitting president from his own party who everyone presumed
would stay in the race and who hated the younger Kennedy’s
guts and who would do anything in his considerable power to
stop an RFK candidacy (up to and including leaking information
about secret FBI wiretaps), no real campaign staff, no national
organization, and no organizations in the many states he would
have to run and win in. (“Indiana will be my West Virginia,”
he told his arguing staffers in March, referring to his older
brother’s important victory over Hubert Humphrey in
West Virginia in 1960 – the primary that made JFK a
In fact, Robert Kennedy knew that as soon as he announced,
he’d be called a traitor by the millions who were rallying
to Senator Gene McCarthy (who polled an incredible 42% of
the New Hampshire primary vote against a sitting president)
and a carpetbagging turncoat by formerly friendly commentators
and Democratic Party insiders. (As it turned out, the vitriol
was even worse than Kennedy had feared – it was a veritable
shitstorm of outrage from precisely those columnists, pols,
and power brokers who should have been RFK’s natural
constituents. Even Richard Goodwin, an insider during the
JFK years and a close friend of Bobby’s, had given up
on RFK’s Hamlet-act and gone off to work for McCarthy.)
In my novel Titus, RFK invites the poet out to Kennedy’s
compound at Hickory Hill, Virginia, on March 15, the day before
Kennedy announces. Jim Whittaker the mountain climber and
dozens of others were milling around – one of RFK’s
weekend parties had been planned long before the decision
to run had come up – and Titus sees the senator for
only a few minutes alone.
The two of them walked
alone, away from the compound of buildings, toward a low grassy
ridge along which a line of trees were showing the first signs
of spring. The air from the east carried the coldness of the
Atlantic in its folds and currents. The senator was wearing
a fleece-collared Navy leather flying jacket with the seal
of the president of the United States on its right breast
– not a prediction, another aide later explained, but
one of his older brother’s jackets that RFK had worn
every fall and winter at home since shortly after the assassination
four and a half years earlier.
“I’m going to announce
my campaign for the presidency tomorrow, Professor Merwyn,”
“If you’ve decided
that already, I presume you didn’t bring me all the
way out here to ask my advice about declaring, Senator.”
“No. Please call me Bobby
“And I’m Titus to my
friends. But I still don’t know what you want from
me. God knows you don’t need another speechwriter.
You have Ted Sorenson, Schlesinger, Adam Walinsky, even
Jeff Greenfield. And Richard Goodwin will probably come
back to you.”
Kennedy shook his head. “Dick
would think it dishonorable to work for me again now, after
committing himself to Gene McCarthy’s campaign. That’s
one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, Titus.
You teach on a campus . . .and in the Midwest where I’ll
have to win early primaries. Do you think your students
will see me as a carpetbagger . . . rushing in to take advantage
of McCarthy’s amazing showing in New Hampshire? Will
the kids against the war see me as an opportunist?”
“Yes,” said Titus.
Kennedy stopped and looked at him.
Titus noticed how cold the man’s blue-gray eyes could
be on such a chilly spring day.
So the two men talk about poetry instead. Kennedy asks Titus
his opinion on “Who the best poet on tragedy is?”
and the 28-year-old poet has to admit that it must be Aeschylus,
the father of tragedy.
“I always think of Aeschylus as a playwright, not a
poet,” says Kennedy. Titus points out that theater 2,400
years earlier in Aeschylus’ day was poetry.
Besides, says Titus, it was Aeschylus who gave Herotodus and
all the other Greeks the concept that tragedy – for
an individual or a family – was the gods’ retribution
for the sin of hubris.
This interests RFK.
Titus gives an example of why he likes Aeschylus, in two
translations. The first is from Edith Hamilton’s 1930’s
translation from “Agamemnon” –
“Drop, drop –
in our sleep, upon the heart of sorrow falls, memory’s
pain, and to us, though against our very will, even in our
own despite, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”
Kennedy likes this but doesn’t understand the “in
our own despite” line. Titus has to admit that he doesn’t
either. He reads Greek only in translation. (“My Ph.D.
thesis was about Henry James’s late style,” he
tells RFK.) But Titus says that he likes an earlier 1926 translation
of the same passage by H.W. Smyth even better and he recites
that as well –
“Zeus, who guided
men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory; against
our pleasure we are temperate.
From our gods who sit in grandeur
grace comes somehow violent.”
“Are you really so smart that you walk around with
all of these quotations in your head, Professor Merwyn?”
Titus confesses that he’s just delivered a paper on
Agamemnon and taught these two translations to his
Kenyon students the previous week.
Cut to April 4, 1968, my 20th birthday, when I go to Kennedy’s
Indianapolis rally alone in real life and my fictional Titus
Merwyn is there with other RFK staffers.
Bobby Kennedy was campaigning in Muncie, Indiana, that day
and heard as he boarded the plane for the short flight to
Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.
A young black man in the largely student crowd in Muncie
had asked Kennedy whether the senator’s apparent belief
in the good faith of white people was justified. RFK replied
that he thought it was. On the plane to Indianapolis, as darkness
fell and rain blew in, Kennedy said to John J. Lindsay of
Newsweek, “You know, it grieves me . . . .
that I just told that kid this and then walk out and find
that some white man has just shot their spiritual leader.”
Kennedy had numerous reasons to worry. For one thing, his
appearance that evening in the toughest section of the worst
ghetto in Indianapolis had been considered a possibly dangerous
situation for Kennedy and his entourage of white staff and
reporters even before the news came that King had
been shot. John Lewis, the former Freedom Rider and SNCC chairman
and Walter Sheridan had set the speech there to make a point
that Kennedy could go “not only into the black community
but into the worst section of the black community.”
Normally Kennedy reveled at walking and speaking in black
and poverty-stricken sections of cities, but there had been
problems before even on days when the leader of the Civil
Rights movement hadn’t been shot. The senator
could only hope that King would survive.
Upon landing in Indianapolis, Kennedy was informed by his
agitated campaign staff that Martin Luther King had died of
his gunshot wound.
Newsweek reporter Lindsay, according to Arthur Schlesinger,
said that Kennedy “seemed to shrink back” at the
news and Lindsay thought “as though struck physically.”
Bobby Kennedy had been so traumatized by his brother Jack’s
assassination that even four and a half years later he wasn’t
able to get Lee Harvey Oswald’s name right. Now RFK
put his hands to his face and said, “Oh, God. When is
this violence going to stop?”
Kennedy’s advisors urged him to cancel the rally. Both
the mayor of Indianapolis and the chief of police urged Kennedy’s
party not to go into the ghetto that night. Their prediction
– which turned out to be correct for most of the nation
– was that black ghettos were going to burn all over
the country. The chief of police was on hand to say that he
couldn’t be responsible for anything that might happen
in that part of Indianapolis. Not that night.
Kennedy sent his wife Ethel on to the Marriott Hotel and
went on to the rally with his small group of staffers and
reporters. The chief of police and the police escort peeled
off from the short motorcade just before they reached the
ghetto and disappeared.
A cold rain had begun to fall. About a thousand people had
gathered in the dark. The rally had been set up in a wind-blown
empty lot surrounded by mostly dark tenements. Most of the
group was black with only a few white people, primarily college
students, in the rain out beyond the edge of the rally crowd,
the white kids hunkering down in the cold wind and doing their
best to look invisible. There was a TV film crew set up –
the organizers had hoped that there’d be some coverage
for the late Indianapolis TV news -- but almost no one in
the crowd had heard the news about Martin Luther King’s
shooting or death yet. This was 1968 – long before cell
phones, earphones, and 24-hour cable news channels. Most people
wouldn’t learn about the murder until the 10 p.m. local
news that night or the next morning’s papers. The mood
was light-hearted and raucous –a political-rally spirit
with hand-painted banners being waved by groups of screeching
and singing black high-school girls while clusters of men
in hooded sweatshirts and work boots visibly drank whiskey
on the outskirts of the crowd and shouted at the women and
families who had crowded in close to the small flatbed truck
where Kennedy was supposed to speak. I don’t remember
seeing any police; if they were there, they were keeping a
When the cars carrying Kennedy arrived, the crowd went nuts.
Speechwriter Adam Walinksy ran up to the senator and handed
him a speech he – Walinksy – had quickly dashed
off. Kennedy shook his head and pulled some crumpled notes
out of his overcoat pocket. It turned out that the old overcoat
RFK was wearing that night had belonged to his brother Jack.
It looked too large on Bobby. His face was pale and lined
in the harsh TV lights. Robert Kennedy that night looked much
older than his 42 years. He looked like a messenger come back
from Hamlet’s country from which no man returns.
waved down the crowd’s shouts and cheers, but some screaming
and hollering continued even as he spoke. “Ladies and
Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just
for a minute or so this evening. Because . . . I have some
very sad news for all of you, for all of our fellow citizens,
and people who love peace all over the world, and that is
that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis,
The gasp from the crowd sounded as if it had come from one
huge organism, not from a thousand separate throats. Some
of the high school girls were still obliviously cheering and
waving banners even as other people screamed “No!”
and hundreds moaned as if from body blows.
Kennedy continued, standing there on the back of the flatbed
truck in the cold wind, his wrinkled raincoat making him look
like a tired traveling salesman with one more stop to make
before he could go home. His Boston accent, so ugly in so
many speeches he’d made during the awkward campaign
to date, suddenly seemed to add to the almost Biblically sad
cadence of what he was saying –
Martin Luther King
dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human
beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult
day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s
perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what
direction we want to move in.
For those of you who are black
– considering the evidence evidently is that there
were white people who were responsible – you can be
filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for
We can move in that direction
as a country, in greater polarization – black people
amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred
toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin
Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace
that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across
our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.
For those of you who are black
and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of
the injustice of such an act, against all white people,
I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the
same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed,
but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort
in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand,
to get beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem . . . my favorite
poet . . . was Aeschylus. He once wrote:” Even in
our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls, drop by drop
upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States
is not division; what we need in the United States is not
hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence
and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion
toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those
who still suffer within our country, whether they be white
or whether they be black.
There was an interrupting wave of applause and some shouts
then, but Bobby Kennedy shook his head and continued softly.
So I ask you tonight
to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther
King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say
a prayer for our own country, which all of us love –
a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I
spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult
times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we
will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end
of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s
not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white
people and the vast majority of black people in this country
want to live together, want to improve the quality of life,
and want justice for all human beings that abide in our
Applause broke out again. The audience had come to a political
rally and wanted to restore some of the cadence of a political
speech, a political rally. Kennedy ignored the applause –
truly ignored it in a way that no politician I’ve
ever seen before or since is capable of ignoring applause
or an audience, his gaze turned inward. He looked (as he would
look and act privately only six weeks later in the Ambassador
Hotel in Los Angeles just hours before he was shot and killed)
like a man in great pain, like someone suffering from a terrible
Let us dedicate
ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame
the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to
that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Thank you very much.
(For an audio recording of this speech, please go to http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/rfk.htm)
And then Kennedy was gone. And then the people left the lot
and the TV and other lights went out and it was a very dark
night in Indianapolis.
And before you get the idea I’m sharing an epiphany
of seeing a saint or seer in action, you should know that
reliable reports have Kennedy returning to the Marriott Hotel
and becoming a little irritated at seeing some of his staffers
weeping. “After all,” he said to Adam Walinsky,
whose speech he’d waved away, “it’s not
the greatest tragedy in the history of the Republic.”
Perhaps part of Kennedy’s irritation that night was
the fact that he remembered all too well that – as Attorney
General of the United States – he’d authorized
wiretaps of Martin Luther King, including those that had caught
King and his top aides having what the FBI later described
as “sexual orgies” with underage teenaged white
girls. Kennedy knew that his enemy LBJ wouldn’t leak
the tapes themselves – although Johnson used to enjoy
inviting special guests to the White House to hear them played
– but he knew that the president would leak
the fact that Kennedy had authorized such surveillance on
the nation’s most famous civil rights leader.
And now King was no longer a mere man – and one with
a voracious sexual appetite if the tapes and other FBI surveillance
were to be believed, as well as his own political ambitions
for the 1970’s and beyond – but had become a martyr.
An American saint. Frozen in time and fixed in the heavens
like a permanent star, his glow never fading or dimming.
There were riots in 110 American cities that night. Entire
sections of major cities such as Newark and Detroit and Los
Angeles burned to the ground, never really to rise again.
But there were no riots in Indianapolis.
There were 39 deaths from the rioting across burning America
that night of April 4, 1968, and more than 2,500 people injured.
The National Guard had to be called out in cities and curfews
imposed. For weeks, the stench of smoke hung over sections
of Washington, D.C. No one died in Indianapolis that night.
Nothing burned in Indianapolis.
This was the beginning of my deep interest in Bobby Kennedy.
Knowing now through decades of reading just how human and
fallible and frequently wrong and occasionally ruthless and
venial RFK could be (and frequently was), he still interests
me more than any other American politician in my lifetime.
Even his vulnerabilities are interesting to me. He was no
saint (although it’s a lie that he ever slept with Marilyn
Monroe), but he was a politician of rare compassion. He dithered
as pathetically as any politician since Adlai Stevenson –
whom Harry Truman once described as a man who couldn’t
decide whether he had to piss or not – but once Robert
Kennedy’s dithering was done, whether it was about climbing
Mt. Kennedy or declaring for the presidency with a real intention
of ending the Vietnam War, he acted decisively and from his
And with real courage.
We all know the rest of the story. Kennedy won the Indiana
primary but went on to lose the Oregon primary to his bitter
opponent Gene McCarthy – the first loss by any Kennedy
in any political contest, if one didn’t count a lost
bid for the Harvard Board of Overseers by the patriarch of
the family. The night of the Oregon primary, on television,
I saw my GO GENE! giant poster in the ballroom at the McCarthy
The loss forced RFK to do something he’d been avoiding
– publicly debate Senator McCarthy. (Kennedy knew that
McCarthy was the stronger debater and more eloquent speaker
and could think on his feet better.) Even so, Kennedy did
not work hard preparing for the debate; his aides found him
reclining on a bed while eating chocolate ice cream and drinking
a beer instead of studying his briefing books. Luckily McCarthy
studied even less for the debate, preparing for the nationally
televised showdown by having some drinks and reciting poetry
with the poet Robert Lowell. McCarthy seemed distracted and
slightly irritable that night on TV, and cool to the point
of indifference. Kennedy was clumsy – openly pandering
to the Jewish vote at one point by reversing his previous
position on providing more arms to Israel – but in the
end none of it mattered.
On Monday, June 4th, 1968, Kennedy won the all-important
California primary. When first reports projected RFK winning
with 49%, Kennedy asked his strategists and a few friendly
reporters about what he had to do to shove the margin up to
50%. Later that evening, reports came in that he had also
won the South Dakota primary. Kennedy was especially pleased
that he’d won a majority of the farmers’ votes
there and an overwhelming majority of the Indians’ votes
as well. How could he lose, he speculated, if he could knock
off a huge state such as California and also win the Indians’
vote on the prairie?
Kennedy’s focus that last evening was about how to
get McCarthy out of the race before the party convention in
Chicago. He discussed offering to make the senator from Minnesota
secretary of state if McCarthy would agree to drop out early.
By late June and July, he said, he wanted to be chasing “Hubert’s
(Humphrey’s) ass all over the country.”
A Look magazine reporter, Warren Rogers, also heard
Kennedy say that during the evening. “I’m going
to get Humphrey. I’m going to make him debate me! I’m
going to chase his ass all around the country.”
Several people reported this comment later because it was
so unlike Bobby Kennedy to use the word “ass.”
Unlike his late older brother, RFK was very prim about his
use of language.
Then it was almost midnight and he had to go down to the
ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, declare victory, and thank
everyone. He’d been feeling lousy all that day, sometimes
curling up in a ball on the floor complaining of a headache,
then rushing to the bathroom to vomit. He’d taken a
nap and recovered enough to make his victory speech and to
smile for the cameras.
Early in his list of thank-yous at the podium, he said, “I
want to express gratitude to my dog Freckles . . . I’m
not doing this in any order of importance, but I also want
to thank my wife Ethel.”
Then it was some of his campaign boilerplate, calling on
his countrymen to end “the divisions, the violence,
the disenchantment. . . . We are a great country, an unselfish
country, and a compassionate country.” He flashed his
huge Bobby Kennedy grin and showed the V-for-victory sign
that Richard Nixon would later ruin for all American politicans
forever and said, “So my thanks to all of you, and now
it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”
then, instead of following the pre-planned and secured path
back through the ballroom with his security detail, Kennedy
followed the maitre d’ who was leading him and his immediate
staff for some inexplicable reason, as the man turned the
wrong way out of the ballroom into a dark corridor and then
into the kitchen. Security people rushed to catch up.
And there an unemployed anti-Semitic Palestinian-American
named Sirhan Sirhan, who’d happened to see Bobby Kennedy
on TV wearing a yarmulke outside a synagogue on the day of
the McCarthy-Kennedy debate and who immediately went out that
day to buy ammunition for his .22-caliber pistol, opened fire
wildly in the crowded kitchen. One slug managed to hit Bobby
Kennedy in the soft tissue behind his right ear and the bullet
entered the senator’s brain.
And that, as they say, was that.
Or almost. Bobby Kennedy continued to breathe for that night
and the long next day and into the next night, but at 1:44
a.m. on June 6, 1968, Robert Francis Kennedy was pronounced
dead. His last full sentence, gasped out 26-hours earlier
as he lay on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel was
– “Is everybody else all right?” And his
last words, more moans than words, as they prepared to move
him onto a stretcher there were – “Oh, no, no,
don’t . . .”
At the White House that long day of June 6, President Lyndon
Johnson had been pacing and demanding of his aides, “I’ve
got to know. Is he dead? Is he dead yet?” Found among
President Johnson’s private papers years later were
notes made by the president two days before, primary day in
California, contemplating another organized assault on RFK’s
reputation. On one slip of paper was – “Cosa
Nostra. Ed Morgan. Send in to get Castro. Planning.”
Ed Morgan was the mobster lawyer for Mafia hit man Johnny
Rosselli who’d first approached Drew Pearson and other
reporters with a story about RFK’s plots to assassinate
But that’s all ancient history now.
One odd footnote to all this is the obscure but interesting
(to me at least) fact that almost all published and Internet
quotations of those lines from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon
now use the (erroneous) Robert F. Kennedy version of
Edith Hamilton’s translation. Instead of her “and
in our own despite,” thousands of Christian and other
inspirational web sites and books quote Kennedy’s “and
in our own despair.” It does make more sense that way.
Did Bobby Kennedy make that little change on purpose? Did
he avoid the more accurate translation “from our gods
who sit in grandeur” in favor of the more pious and
Christian-sounding “wisdom through the awful grace of
We’ll never know. But my new novel’s character
Titus Merwyn, the aging poet-professor who knew Kennedy slightly
in 1965-’68, has always been curious.
And if you go to Arlington Cemetery to see Robert F. Kennedy’s
grave (but not many people do), you may have a hard time finding
President Kennedy’s burial site is a huge tourist attraction
with its eternal flame burning, but Bobby Kennedy had asked
for a plain white cross on his brother’s grave. He didn’t
get that, of course – Jackie Kennedy had the final say,
as wives usually do.
Robert Kennedy’s grave is off to one side, down a narrow
grassy corridor and shielded from public view by some trees.
On a block of marble facing his grave are fragments of his
two best speeches, part of his peroration from a Day of Affirmation
speech he gave in South Africa – “Each time
a man stands up for an ideal . . . he sends a tiny ripple
of hope” – and the quote from Aeschylus he
gave on April 4, 1968, -- “In our sleep, pain that
cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our
own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful
grace of God.”
Only on the gravestone marble, they have omitted the “own”
I’m finishing this little essay at about the time of
night that RFK was shot. I’ll proof it and try to get
it finished by about the time that Kennedy was declared dead
26 hours after the shooting. I do a lot of writing at this
time of the night, but I never like these hours much.
The 2006 midterm election is on my mind. As I said, although
I’m no longer a Democratic operative (or even a registered
Democrat), nor a Republican, I’m optimistic about the
way things might go for the country in the coming months.
You’re reading this in my future, so I hope you’ve
seen some small change for the better – in the small
drop-by-drop mood of things if not in huge changes. It will
be interesting to hear what the Baker-Hamilton Commission
suggests we do in Iraq – although we already know that
the options available to us are few and painful -- and it
will be interesting to see if President Bush and the new Democratic
majority in the Senate and House will use those recommendations
as an excuse to act together for a change.
As I learned in a truly shitty year – 1968
– and have seen confirmed so many times since, this
nation is essentially centrist and essentially decent in its
politics, despite the polarization, hatred, and hyperbole
that seem to plague it in such regular cycles. A single man
– it might possibly have been Bobby Kennedy –
could have, might have, should
have ended the Vietnam War years earlier, saved many thousands
of American lives there, and healed the nation in other ways
that are hard to imagine now. Or maybe not.
But I’m optimistic about the rise of future leaders
of that caliber – whether they be white, whether they
be black, whether they be male, whether they be female, or
whether they be . . . jeez, that whether-they be phrase is
easy to slide into and hard to climb out of. Use it too much
and you begin sounding like a British weather forecaster with
a terrible stutter.
But, truth be told, I’m not that optimistic.
We are a great country and an unselfish country and
a compassionate country – at least when we’re
at our best – but neither the electorate nor its politicians
in recent years and decades have chosen to be at their best
very often. All in all, things were lousier for America in
the 1960’s – more racist, more violent, more confused
-- but perhaps some aspect of ourselves as a people was healthier
then. It’s possible, given our system for choosing presidents
these days in which mediocrity excels, that no great and uniting
leader will appear again in any of our lifetimes.
And yet . . .
And yet . . .
A political operative I have a lot of respect for recently
said that the most important thing going for the next serious
candidate for president in this country is that he or she
must have very little baggage. The electorate, especially
the huge moderate center, is sick unto death of all the leaky
baggage being hauled around and dumped in our faces. Some
contenders leading in party polls right now, such as a certain
unnamed junior senator from New York, remind me of the Victorian
explorer Isabella Bird who traveled the world with 29 steamer
There is an equally unnamed young and callow (but charismatic
and seemingly thoughtful and compassionate) senator from Illinois,
I’m told, who – in my favorite political operative’s
phrase – “doesn’t even have a carry-on bag
to his name.”
The next two years should be – as the old Chinese curse
goes – very interesting.
If I don’t talk to you again before late December gets
here, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and have a Joyous .
. . and optimistic . . . New Year.