I first realized that I didn’t much like Robert F. Kennedy when he decided to run for the U.S. Senate from the state of New York in 1964. There were three overriding factors:
1. I had heard that the FBI was bugging Martin Luther King, Jr., and I felt that as U.S. Attorney General, he was responsible.
2. We had a perfectly good moderate Republican senator in Kenneth Keating, in the Jacob Javits tradition. I know some of you are too young to remember moderate Republicans. They existed. Really.
3. I had read a syndicated column in the morning newspaper in Binghamton, the Sun-Bulletin, where William F. Buckley compared RFK to a “carpetbagger”. Of course, his own brother, James, would move into New York, to run for and win a Senate seat in 1970; the tradition continued with Hillary Clinton in 2000.
BTW, I was 11 at the time. I was a political junkie, even then.
As it turned out, Bobby Kennedy won the Senate seat. Satirist Tom Lehrer quipped that Massachusetts then had three senators. Ken Keating ended up on the state Court of Appeals, which, despite its name, is New York’s highest court. (Whereas the Supreme Court is a trial court; go figure.) He then served as a US Ambassador, first to India, then to Israel.
Move to 1968. Eugene McCarthy runs against an incumbent President and gets 42% of the vote versus 49% for LBJ in the New Hampshire primary on March 12. It’s only then that Bobby Kennedy gets into the race. Commentators at the time declared that Kennedy used McCarthy as a “stalking horse” against Johnson, and I tended to agree. LBJ’s declaration that he would not run came at the end of March. This was followed on April 4 by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which ultimately had a profoundly moderating effect on my world view.
I stayed up to see the results of the California primary on June 5, only to see RFK’s shooting in Los Angeles; “seeing” would be overstating, since I heard the shots and chaos ensued. He died the next day. I knew many people who were deeply affected by his loss. I too was at a loss, though. While I certainly didn’t wish him ill, I wasn’t having the same sensation, and I was feeling pretty guilty about it. Yet, as I watched the days of coverage, seeing people lined the railroad tracks as the train carrying his body went by, somehow I started to emphasize with what those folks felt.
A few years later, Tom Clay, a radio disc jockey, born in Binghamton, but by then working out of Los Angeles’ KGBS, put together this very odd song, melding the Bacharach-David song “What the World Needs Now” with the Dion hit “Abraham, Martin and John.” I’ve written about this record before, even putting it on as the last song on a mixed CD. The song starts off rather cloyingly, with Clay asking children about prejudice and segregation, and them having no idea, then segues into soldiers preparing for the Viet Nam war. Next, reports of JFK’s and MLK’s death, with this comment by Bobby Kennedy about the latter: “No one can be certain who next will suffer, from some senseless act of bloodshed.”
Then the record uses what I believe to be the audio tape of reporter Andrew West of KRKD, a Mutual Broadcasting System radio affiliate in Los Angeles, who also provided a blow-by-blow account of the struggle with the shooter Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel kitchen pantry, shouting at Olympian Rafer Johnson to “Get the gun, Rafer, get the gun!” and telling others to “get a hold of his thumb and break it, if you have to! Get his thumb! We don’t want another Oswald!” (Not so incidentally, I was watching the television 4 1/2 years earlier when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot.)
The next thing heard is Senator Edward Kennedy, eulogizing Bobby: “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” Ted Kennedy’s voice cracks during that section, and my own pain, largely missing at the time, except as a supporter of others who mourned, came into fruition; it gets to me every time I hear it. The remaining Kennedy brother concluded his eulogy, by quoting George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?'”
In retrospect, I think that Bobby Kennedy was transforming from a cool, calculating politician to a more truly compassionate man, and I mourn his death now far more than I did at the time.
Here are the lyrics to the song.
The YouTube video may not be historically accurate. I swear I hear David Brinkley’s voice when Walter Cronkite is on the screen.
Oh, and like so much in this campaign, I thought the Hillary Clinton “gaffe” re: RFK’s assassination was a non-issue.