Monday, November 19, 2007

Remembering RFK 1925-1968

Last night I finally had the opportunity to view Bobby, a film based on the events of the horrible night of June 5, 1968, when Robert Francis Kennedy, candidate for the Democratic nomination and the man that common political sense dictated would be the next president of the United States was gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. When I woke up early this morning I was struck by the sudden realization that tomorrow would have been his eighty-second birthday.
The passage of nearly forty years does little to erase the feeling of loss and despair not only for the dreams of what might have been but - almost as importantly - of what might not have been. One need only look into the man's personal history to know that he no doubt would have been an able and conscientious (if imperfect) chief executive. Contemplating how history might have judged his term of office would be like, as someone once remarked, throwing darts into a fog. There is every possibility that he would have remained the figure of debate and controversy that he was from the moment he entered the public arena in the mid 1950s - much as Franklin D. Roosevelt is to this very day. "Ruthless" was the word his detractors liked to use in describing him. But he was also capable and willing to take unpopular stands for the greater public good and, unlike his timid and pathetic Democratic heirs, Bobby Kennedy was unafraid to take bold and courageous action. If the assassination of President Kennedy in November of 1963 had a stunning impact on progressive politics in America, the murder of his younger brother four and a half years later would ultimately prove to be the fatal blow. Nothing would ever be the same again. Nothing.
He was so unlike the caricature of what we've come to expect from most politicians: his voice was soft and he spoke with a slight lisp. In spite of his much heralded "toughness" there always seemed to be an almost fragile vulnerability about him. When talking to an audience of farm laborers or inner city youth, he could quote George Bernard Shaw or the ancient greek playwrites Aeschylus and Sophocles without showing even the slightest hint of condescension. Said his most recent biographer, Evan Thomas:
"He seemed so young when he died. He was young - only forty-two, a year younger than JFK had been upon his election as the second youngest president in the nation's history. But Robert Kennedy somehow seemed younger, more boyish. With his buck teeth and floppy hair and shy gawkiness, he sometimes came across like an awkward teenager. At other times, he was almost childlike in his wonder and curiosity."
He also had the political courage to tell the American people the hard and bitter truths they would have preferred to ignore. During the ill-fated campaign of 1968, during a question and answer session after a speech, a smug member of a mostly college-age audience sarcastically asked the Senator just who he thought was going to pay for all of these of these proposed programs of his. Kennedy looked the guy dead in the eye and said, "You are."
They just don't make Democrats like that anymore, do they?
Like all great men, he was riddled with contradictions. This son of privilege - who while growing up had never had even casual contact with poor people or minority groups - would become their most passionate, vocal advocate in a Senate crammed to the rafters with rich, White men. A very serious and introspective man, he was also in possession of a riotous sense of humor. This champion of freedom would begin his political career as a legal advisor to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. His role as Attorney General in John F. Kennedy's White House would alternate between being the president's attack dog/enforcer, to being the gentle voice of his conscience. Although "ruthless", there were still in his personality the faint remnants of the alter boy he had been as a child. Jack was Joe's son; Bobby was Rose's. The differences in personality between the two brothers may be summed up in their choice of friends: Jack's great buddy was Frank Sinatra; Bobby's was Andy Williams. That speaks volumes.
November 22, 1963 would change him forever. His faith shaken, his friend Charles Spalding would remember hearing his sobbing voice from behind the closed door of a White House bedroom, mournfully imploring, "Why, God, why?" In the months to follow, he would seem to many like a ghost of what he had once been. It was at this time that he began to devour philosophical and theological texts, desperately trying to come to terms with and make sense of the tragedy that had befallen himself and the entire country. It was only in March of 1965, when he became the first human being to reach the top of the 13,900 foot mountain that the Canadian government had rechristened, Mount Kennedy, that he was able to accept the loss. In a moment filled with emotion and symbolism, after walking alone up the last fifty yards and reaching mountain's summit, the party of professional climbers who had accompanied him, saw him drop to his knees and make the sign of the cross. The burden had been lifted.
Eight months later he would be elected as Senator from the State of New York. This was the beginning of his most visible and prolific period as spokesman of America's poor and dispossessed. He literally became the conscience of the nation, visiting the most poverty-ridden slums and farm worker dwellings - not only in New York but all over the country. He was trying to awaken his fellow countrymen and women to the fact that this situation just should not exist in the richest land in the world. Black people - millions of them - saw him as their last, best hope. Indeed, it has been remarked that Kennedy could talk to mostly Black audiences and mostly White audiences with equal credibility. Nobody even tries to do that anymore! Like the suffering endured by FDR while battling polio almost half a century earlier, his deep sorrow following Jack's murder had instilled in him a stronger empathy for the suffering of others. His desire to remake the United States into the country described by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, a nation where "all men are created equal" was as real as his unashamed love of America itself. And if he sometimes compromised for reasons of temporary political expediency, he was as incorruptible as the rising moon. He never pandered to fear or tried to appeal to the worst instincts palpable in so many Americans. When he spoke to people, he spoke up to them - as intelligent human beings - summoning the better angels of their nature. No one does that anymore either.
It is hard if not impossible to accurately gauge what was lost on that long ago, dark and hideous night in Los Angeles. To think where we might have gone but for the bullet of one deranged and confused mad man. A second Kennedy administration (which would have ended on January 20, 1977) would definitely have prevented eight years of Nixon and Watergate and might very well have prevented the dawning of the insane right wing era that began exactly four years later with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan - and has continued for twenty-seven years - an era which has ruined a country that used to be a nice place in which to live. We are a better people because, for one brief shining moment, Bobby Kennedy walked among us. Think how much better off we'd be today had he been allowed to stick around.
On the night of August 28, 1964, at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, Robert F. Kennedy was greeted by the delegates with a thundering ovation that lasted almost a half an hour. When the crowd finally calmed down, he paid tribute to his late, martyred brother, dead only nine months. Quoting Shakespeare in a passage from Romeo and Juliet, what he said that evening resonates across the decades. It might also be said for Bobby himself:
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of Heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
Robert Kennedy: His Life
by Evan Thomas

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At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I always learn amazing things from reading this blog! Reflecting on your words and what I myself can recall about him, I have to agree: some of this country's greatness died with Bobby Kennedy the night he was shot.

I see an ominous cloud on the horizon as the number of enlightened, disgusted Americans grows amidst the mind boggling corruption of our nation's founding principles by our faithless and spineless leadership. A violent and climactic clash between the will of the people and the will of the powers that be shall soon be unavoidable. My advice to my children and friends: stay alert and prepare to have to survive under conditions you never thought you'd have to face in this lifetime. To quote Al Gore, quoting Winston Churchill prior to WWII: "We have passed through the era o warnings and have now entered the era of consequences..." Churchill was speaking of the danger posed by a little known madman named Adolph Hitler, Al Gore speaks of the danger from global warming, and I am referring to the failure of our government resulting in the imminent collapse of our economy and infrastructure. I hope it doesn't happen, but each day brings new signs that it is unavoidable.

I'm grateful for the circle of friends around me who see the big picture. If we can't prevent disaster, at least we can help each other get through it. We must keep alive the memory of better days and never forget to be happy with the little pleasures life can bring each day.

Thanks again for a beautiful memoir of a great American.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger stoney13 said...

I STILL think that there is more to the death of Robert Kennedy than what is being said! The whole thing stinks to high heavens!

Too many holes for the bullets in the gun, Sirhan Sirhan's notebook with "Bobby Kennedy must die" written in it THOUSANDS of times, and the way The Democratic Party lost it's bearings after the assassination leads me to believe that there are just too many things that conveniently happened for it to be circumstance, or coincidence

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right Stoney! Bobby's death, like JFK's can't pass the smell test.
Like FDR's death I will never forget the moment I learned of both Kennedy's death.
In 1968 I was living in Drake-Edwards Kaserne in a FFM suburb and a delivery man blurted out, Kennedy was Shot! I said another one?!!
In the wake of the 911 conspiracy stories I read that GHW Bush was in Dallas on the day JFK was shot, not at the offical site.
The world would indeed be a different place today if both Kennedys were allowed their three score and ten which is why they had to go.
Our infrastructure is close to the point of no return, the collapse of the housing market will send seismic shocks all thru the economy and will be like the dominoes the college kids used to set up where on tipped domino sent the whole structure toppling.
No more than today's kids know of history most of them probably have little knowledge of the Kennedys tho they know of Britney's, JLo's capers and Brad Pitt's latest heartthrob.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks,Tom, that was a fine memorial to one of my heroes.

I worked with Bobby in 1960 during the Wisconsin primary and found him to be astute and hard-charging and not too likeable. But he did what he had to do to get his brother elected.

But the Bobby who stepped forward after his brother's death was a very different person.

You have put your finger on most of it. He semed at times unsure, to speak from the heart, articulate, at times erudite. His emotion seeped through when he stood facing poverty, the poor and little children. He wore the sadness in his heart on his face where you could see and feel it. You knew, just knew he meant what he said.

Was it substantive? Some would doubt his sincerity, unable to accept his directness and honesty. But there were many who knew what they were seeing was genuine, even extraordinary. This was our one chance and many of us took it and went to work for him in '68.

Who else in this Nation of ours could have stepped into a black community and announced the death of Dr. King? And what he said touched the hearts of those who heard him. And who else would have quoted Aeschylus at such a time and place?

Two portraits emerge.

One in West Virgina, Bobby, having just come out of a shack and now on the rail track, walking away from staff, reporters, back hunched, to be alone, perhaps to conceal his anger at the poverty he had seen and, more importantly, felt; his foot flicking out at a stone as an exprsssion of the frustration he could't conceal.

Another, from a newspaper article by David Murray of the Chicago Sun Times.

The article is too long to quote in full but the essence is this.

Bobby is visiting the James Whitcomb Riley home in Indianapolis and he wanders down the street to a shabby day nursery, a Gothic structure with paint peeling, hedged by a fence and sagging barbed wire. The kids inside this cage poke their gingers through the fence and he pushes his fingers back at them, no one speaking.

He begins to talk to them, softly so others around him can't hear. He talks and as he talks, he strokes their fingers. These are five-year olds from broken home, little kids who've known pain and loneliness.

He speaks with one of the care givers and then pushes the gate open and hunkers down to talk with the children some more.

Here I quote: "Two little girls came up to him and put their heads against his waist and he put his hands on their heads. And suddenly it was hard to watch, because he had become in that monment the father they did not know, or the elder brother who couldn't talk to them, or, more important, listen to them ..."

Bobby continues to talk to them and they to him, softly, almost a whisper. They are bonding with this politician, with this man who has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps.

And as he leaves, this observation from the reporter: " ... anyone who has ever dealt with 5-year olds knows this - you can fool a lot of people in a campaign, and you can create phony issues if you want to, and you can build an image with a lot of sharpsters around you with their computers and their press releases. But lonely little children don't come up to you and put their heads on your lap unless you mean it."

In 1968, we worked with him to realize his hope for the people of America and around the world.
And I think we knew it would end with sadness. But for that moment, for those few short weeks, we rode toward the stars.

Yes, Tom, the world would be much different today had Bobby won election.

I doubt we will find another Bobby in my lifetime or yours but maybe, just maybe, who he was and what he wished for others will provide the incentive and courage for someone to step up, and, unafraid, speak the ideals he - and we - believed in. And just maybe we'll hear the verities of Aeschylus and Robert Frost quoted again.

That would be uplifting. And we sure could use a little of that these days.


At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fearless flower,

It is sad, far to many people have no will, no thought, no sense of civic responsibility beyond tuning into the next reality show or news broadcast (and don't they amount to the same thing). As far as the US government is concerned, these people are doing their part - which is to be ignorant and (therefore) unconcerned and impotent.

Your revolution should have occurred when our government moved into the global terrorism business after world war II. What we have now with the current administration is the same crap - it just stinks more than usual!

On the other hand, the bush team's lavish handouts to the super rich and corporate interests may just bring on the collapse of the whole system. It is already showing up in the mortgage situation - and we have only seen the beginning... You might think of our economy as a ship that is striking an iceburg the size of the Ross Ice Shelf. This is a different kind of clash.

At 2:54 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Dear Jan....
[LONG, AWKWARD PAUSE] Never mind. I am speechless....Thank you for a great comment.

Tom Degan

At 4:52 PM, Blogger sharon said...

Hi, Tom,

Found you from the comment you left on AlterNet, on the article "Whatever happened to "We the People?"

Your tribute to RFK, and the comments that follow, brings tears to my eyes. I was a 14-yr-old jr. high student in Dallas, TX on 11/22/63. Four and a half years later I was a high school senior, still in Dallas. Bobby had resurrected all the hopes and dreams that had been crushed on that awful November day. In hindsight, seeing what our country has become, it's difficult not to imagine that a single conspiracy was behind both murders. But even if there were, and even if it could be proven at this late date, what good would it do us now? We have to pick up and carry on from where we are right now. One or two of our presidential candidates show some of that RFK fearlessness, but the national media has been so thoroughly co-opted to the will of the neo-CONs, that it's hard for their voices to be heard above the din. The 2008 election could be our last chance.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

Some posts and comments make me weep.
For those times.
For who we were.
For lost hope.
And dreams.
For the changes we hoped to see.
For all of us being equal. Everywhere.
Thank you.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Avram Mirsky said...


You brought tears to my eyes with this one. I had just signed up to work for his campaign, and then came the news from LA. No, nothing would ever be the same.


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