June 5, 1968: A Memory Awash in Claret
The date: June 5, 1968. 11:44pm, California time. The Place: the corridor of the kitchen at the since-demolished Ambassador Hotel, 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, between Catalina Street and Mariposa Avenue. The event: The night of the California Democratic presidential primary in which New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy defeated Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy by a margin of 4 points - 46%-42%. After briefly addressing his adoring, idealistic supporters in the hotel ballroom, he ends with the words "My thanks to all of you; and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there!" Then, surrounded by his entourage (which included star athletes Rafer Johnson and Roosevelt Grief, writer George Plimpton and California Assembly Speaker Jess "Big Daddy" Unruh, Senator Kennedy headed towards the kitchen corridor, where he is shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan. 26 hours later doctors at nearby Good Samaritan Hospital pronounce the 42-year old senator dead. All of this is transpiring in real time on television sets across the country and around the world. Personally, I am sitting in the family room with my mother, glued to the tube in mute shock and absolute horror. We are numbing ourselves, drinking endless glasses of wine; claret if I recall.
- There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.
The night Senator Kennedy was shot was the first (and as far as I can recall, the only) time I ever got blotto with my mother. Without all the claret, the immediate pain would have been far too much to bear. Dad had gone to bed early, so mom and I stayed up to watch the election returns. Originally, both of us had supported Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy for the nomination. But then, in late-March, early-April, we both shifted our allegiance to Senator Kennedy, figuring that he would have the best chance of being elected president. And besides, he was, in comparison, to "Clean for Gene" McCarthy, the most well-rounded; in addition to being firmly against the war in Viet Nam (as was Senator McCarthy), he was, we felt, far better versed in domestic issues such as taxes, education, healthcare and civil rights. And, he was a liberal idealist. Oh yes, we were aware that fifteen years earlier, he had worked as an assistant on Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose sole purpose was examining possible communist infiltration of the U.S. government. But we also knew that that post was extremely short-lived (RFK quickly came to despise the perpetually drunken McCarthy as well as his puppet-master, the obnoxious Roy Cohn, and that he, RFK, underwent a radical reassessment. People can grow and see the error of their ways . . .
- The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society.
Over the years, mom and I - along with lots of other political creatures - have wondered what the world would have been like in the 1970s, 80s - indeed, all the way up to this very day - had Bobby Kennedy not been felled by the assassin's bullet and actually gone on to be elected President of the United States. No one, of course, can know for certain what the future would have become. One thing is for sure: Had Bobby Kennedy made it to the general election, Richard Nixon would have likely gone back to practicing high-priced law and writing books. And, perhaps most important of all, Watergate and all the future distrust, paranoia, cynicism and political anomie it gave rise to - again, up until this very day - would likely never have impregnated the American political process. How long it would have taken the Vietnam War to end is anyone's guess. However, it is quite possible that as President, RFK would have entered into a peace process almost immediately if for no other reason than the caliber, the conscience, experience and political worldview of the diplomats and strategists who lived in the Kennedy stable. Above all else, we would have had in Robert Kennedy that rarest of political creatures: one who could learn from and have reverence for the past even while fearlessly paving the path to the future.
- Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
RFK, as most of us know, came from a famously wealthy, (though far-from-saintly) family which nonetheless believed in - and acted upon - the concept of noblesse oblige: e.g. that riches and entitlement demand social responsibility. Unlike many of the current crop of "richer-than-Croesus" officeholder, the Kennedys wore their wealth and social position like a comfortable old cardigan. In 1968, RFK managed to forge a coalition of working class whites and black voters into a remarkable coalition by communicating to both groups (as well as a lot of anti-war college students) and convincing them that he really, truly cared about their futures. And mind you, many of these working class whites had voted for the openly segregationist George Wallace in previous elections. Unlike our contemporary politics and politicians, RFK, in the words of the Century Foundation's Senior Fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg, ". . . was a liberal without the elitism and a populist without the racism." Senator Kennedy believed in both capitalism, and the American Dream, and sought to engraft a muscular, non-saccharine idealism onto the soul of a country frequently at odds with itself. Would he have succeeded had he lived to become POTUS? One can only hope. Would we have imbibed our Claret in celebration rather than in sadness? Again, only heaven knows. But considering where we've arrived and what we've become over the past year to year-and-a-half, it is clear that America needs leaders who, like Robert F. Kennedy, can be both dreamer and delegate; who can look in the mirror and see not just themselves, but an entire nation, an entire world, and understand that the planet we occupy is but on loan from the Omnipresent. And yes, we need leaders who are mature, literate, self-assured adults.
- Every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after. In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.
And more than anything else - perhaps - we need leaders who can recite - let alone be fueled by - RFK's credo, which he borrowed from the first act of George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah:
- "You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’".
Permit Mom and me to raise a glass to both GBS and RFK.
509 days down, 963 days to go.
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone