In Transit: America in the Eye of the Telescope Site
May 23, 1968
LOS ANGELES — At the long rented tables inside the door of Kennedy-for-President headquarters, three middle-aged ladies wearing Kennedy hats were selling bumper stickers and posters. It was the afternoon after Nebraska and you arrived expecting elation, perhaps even euphoria; instead the three middle-aged ladies sat there rather glumly, staring out at the bright clean sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard and the plump, suited figures of other ladies shopping at the Broadway across the street.
“What’s the matter?” I asked one of them, a blue-haired lady nervously shuffling bumper stickers. “I thought you’d have a party going here.”
“Oh, no, “she said, smiling metallically. “We’re just beginning. The real one is just beginning.”
She was right, of course, Indiana, the District of Columbia, and Nebraska were important enough; Kennedy could not have afforded to lose any of them. But the real fight is in California. This is the heart of the new United States, and if he cannot win convincingly, Hubert Humphrey will be the next President of the United States.
“The other ones were just the preliminaries,” a young USC graduate said. “It’s sort of like the heavyweight elimination. You can’t afford to lose any of them, but the last one is the big one.”
Away down Wilshire Boulevard, in Beverly Hills, McCarthy for President headquarters had seemied like a West Coast version of Walter B. Cooke’s. One lovely little girl sat behind a table covered with literature and her face was so wasted and forlorn that you felt like taking her to a Laurel and Hardy movie just to give her some perspective.
“It’s so … unfair!” she said.
Kennedy headquarters was something else: it had a kind of motion and fury to it, played against a background of jerky shabbiness. The walls were painted red, white, and blue; adorned with posters of the candidate. People were dashing everywhere: the three middle-aged ladies were the somber window dressing for a jumble of hammering typewriters, clattering mimeograph machines, ringing telephones, blasting tv sets, radios turned to the all-news channel. Young girls with impossibly white teeth and Kennedy hats gathered up clusters of posters and signs to take to the airport to greet the candidate. They walked across a floor littered with a compost of cigarette butts, crushed coffee cups, discarded press releases, balled carbon paper, and crusts of Danish pastries. They were pretty but they were like all the chicks you ever saw around a campaign headquarters: clean, straight, smart, and oddly sexless; in the sack, they probably hollered for the Candidate.
The men in Kennedy headquarters were something else. All the younger guys seemed to have been pressed from the same mold at the Rent-a-Volunteer-with-Pragmatic-Compassion Works. They wore grey suits on the street, and in the office hiked their shirt-sleeves halfway up the forearm, in case a photographer from Look dropped by. They all had horn-rimmed glasses. They all had tight law-school mouths. They all smoked thin panatella cigars. And they were all pricks. That is, they were almost without exception rude, bursting with self-importance, quick to hang up telephones, incapable of returning calls, and for most purposes unconcerned with anything except the technical processes of politics.
With a few exceptions, Kennedy had nothing to do with enlisting these people. Most of them, I’m told, have come out of the Jesse Unruh operation in California. Unruh does not run a machine, in the old sense of that word; but in Democratic politics in this state he has the best organization. The trouble is that the guys who work for him now feel they are working for a winner at last, after the Pat Brown and Pierre Salinger disasters. And they feel that they can win without any outside help. The major organizational problem Kennedy has in California has been caused by the Unruh men who answer the telephones; hundreds of people who wanted to work for Kennedy were told by Unruh’s people to forget it, they had enough help. These potential volunteers have gone to work for McCarthy, or the Peace and Freedom Party, or stayed home. (I haven’t heard of anyone joining up with Hubert, the Soul Brother.)
My brother Brian and I were standing around when one ot the volunteers came over. He was one of the few fat guys in the place, and stuttered a little.
“You going to the airport?” he said.
“Yeah … ”
“Can you take two riders?”
Why not? I told Brian. We’re going out there anyway. A few minutes later the fat guy came back with a girl and a pile of posters.
“You can squeeze in some more people, can’t you?”
The guy looked miffed. We went and got the car, and the fat guy and his girl and his hats and his posters all piled into the back. We started for the San Diego freeway and the airport. After two blocks the fat guy said: “Roll the window down, will you?”
“Can I smoke?” I asked.
“Let him walk,” Brian said.
“Just don’t want to get a cold,” the fat guy said.
I rolled the window up. The girl was quiet and the fat guy started talking about how terrible it was that Kennedy was late after all the planning they had done. I rolled the window down.
Kennedy was expected at American Airlines Gate 44, and all the way to the airport a disc jockey who sounded like 1958 Bruce Morrow announced the arrival time every 10 minutes. I expected 10,000 people. There were about 100 there when we arrived. They were clustered around the gate, with the press off in the waiting area on the side. About 60 Kennedy girls in tight white blouses and plastic boaters were rehearsing a song while a woman’s voice led them on from same mysterious loudspeaker. The song kept repeating a line that talked about “… conscience with a capital K …” It sounded like a song constructed by Jimmy Van Heusen for the Ku Klux Klan.
All the little girls were white, except for one pretty black chick with blue eyes (sorry, Rap) who was brought up to the front for the photographers. A black guy and his wife and six-year-old daughter leaned over the fence to see Kennedy. The man carried a Kodak. I asked him why he was there.
“Bobby’s my man.” he said. “I want my daughter to see him too.”
“We never saw President Kennedy in the flesh,” his wife said. “And so we want the little girl to see Bobby.”
The little girl watched the cameramen, who were banging and tripping each other with cameras and wires. As usual they reminded me of the CBS reporter who once said, “If I ever have a retarded child, God forbid, I won’t worry. I’ll just enroll him in the cameraman’s union.” Then a middle-aged woman came to the front, trim, neat, bright-eyed, in a white dress a couple of inches above the knee, looking like she drank Tanqueray in the summer and Chivas Regal in the winter and subscribed dutifully to the New York Review. She started dancing, cold sober, and I realized she was the cheerleader. She started singing again about conscience with a capital K, and all the Kennedy girls did their best, while the reporters and photographers stared dully at them and I wondered if there were any girls in California with flat chests and cavities. They weren’t at the airport.
After awhile a squad of the pricks arrived carrying clipboards and folders, smoking those goddamned small cigars, wearing the tight mouths and the horn-rimmed glasses. They started pushing the crowd around and making Terse Announcements about how Kennedy would first make a statement to the press and then would walk through a kind of gauntlet of Kennedy girls “so you can all see him.” Then they started arranging the reporters, with the tv guys in front, followed by a few lonely magazine reporters, and the local newspapers somewhere around the candy stand in the next terminal. The crowd was growing bigger now, with people standing up on the stairs to the left and a few cops drifting around the edges.
About 7:30 the plane arrived, and the crowd had grown to about 1000. Those reporters who had not been given a week off by their bosses trailed off first, limp and pale, toting typewriters. The cameramen crashed forward, a wall of them, and the girls’ choir came on about the conscience with a capital K, and you could hear screaming and shouting, and there was Kennedy, with tired lines around his eyes, blue-grey suit, his lips moving into the cluster of microphones, and I decided to get the hell out of there.
I made it just in time: the line of girls were pushed forward, some women screamed, the black guy was wobbling with his daughter on his shoulder, and the cameramen were committing various acts of mayhem as they shot film they must have known would never be used. Another mob was in the rotunda near the escalator. One of the pricks pushed a tv reporter and the tv reporter gave him a good shove back. More screaming. A little girl fell.
“I touched his hand, I touched his hand,” said one of the long-haired California girls.
“I’d hate to tell you where I touched him,” her girl friend said, all teeth and innocence.
And then we were down the stairs and moving fast along the shiny corridor between the horizontal escalators that they use to move people in L.A. Kennedy did his best to smile while people leaped around him and then he was outside, climbing into the convertible, while the press buses loaded, and we went off behind him to Valley College in Van Nuys.
The trip took us north on the freeways, heading for the blue ridge of mountains that separates L.A. from the San Fernando Valley. Mayor Yorty had provided two motorcycle cops and a stationwagon with two more to follow the press buses. We didn’t know until later that the Van Nuys cops had received a call from some terrified citizen saying that his brother was going to shoot Kennedy.
We got off the freeway at Burbank Boulevard and passed into a neighborhood of town houses, clotheslines, gas stations, kids on bikes. A sound truck had plowed the route earlier, warning the residents that Kennedy was coming. The reception from knots of scattered people was warm. The kids on the bikes kept up with the motorcade all the way to the college. I saw one Nixon sign, one sign that simply said “Eccch!”, and about 50 Kennedy signs. At one point, a lone man in a sleeveless undershirt stood out in the street under the trees and shouted, “Booo.” That’s all he said, and you wondered what the hell his kids thought of him.
There were cops blocking traffic at the college, and they stopped a black reporter in a Volkswagen in front of us and made him park three blocks away. They couldn’t let us do anything else. We parked and started running through the cool evening after the twin red eyes of the press bus. It was beautiful: kids on an overpass, someone yelling into a bullhorn, and Brian and me running through the tennis courts on the trail of the candidate. And all around us young college kids were running too, in the direction of the great ugly brown building where Kennedy was scheduled to speak.
The motorcade stopped at the front door and the McCarthy signs started waving high. Kennedy tried to get out, and the cops started rapping people with bats held at each end. I was on the side beside a hedge of pine trees as we all tried to get into the gym behind Kennedy.
This was impossible. When Kennedy was through the door, they slammed it behind him and locked it.
“It’s all right, it’s all right, there’s a loudspeaker.”
“What about the press?”
“Go around the back.”
A guy fell on the ground beside me, and a girl stepped on him, and we cleared some room. “I lost my shoe!” he said. There seemed to be nowhere to move, so Brian and I started to crawl under the pine trees. A big dark grey dog stared us in the eye.
“The hell with it,” I said. We ran around to the back, and the door there was locked too. Three football players arrived and started crashing with their fists against the door. It looked certain that we’d be arrested if we stayed with them. That, or torn limb from limb by the people charged with feeding them. We went around to the front again and finally convinced a cop that we were supposed to be on the inside. We stepped through, followed suddenly by the football players. Another beautiful evening in the only life I will ever have.
Kennedy was already talking when we came into the gym. There were about 8000 young people in the place. The McCarthy kids were in the stands flanking the speaker’s platform and down in front, seated on the floor, were some of the kids from the Peace and Freedom Party, who looked like the McCarthy kids before they cut their hair.
Kennedy was talking about welfare and the need to give citizens jobs. It was a familiar theme, and Kennedy himself seemed a bit bored by it. The formal speech was repetitious and ragged and was not really what these young sons and daughters of the middle class had come to hear. They wanted to hear about Vietnam and true change in the American system. Kennedy was not giving that to them, though he was applauded loudly and often. He talked about how great numbers of Americans were hungry and humiliated, “how some of them might have wanted husbands, some of them might have wanted fathers, and we have only given them checks.” He talked about what a disaster the welfare system was, how demeaning and ugly it was. He started building then, throwing the prepared speech away. He talked about the law passed by Congress last year that will cut off vast numbers of children from even the humiliating subsistence of welfare. “Those children have a choice between starving to death or moving,” Kennedy said. “I’ve seen them, in the state of Mississippi, with their bellies swollen and their faces covered with sores …” He enumerated and exploded some of the myths about the poor. “It is simply not true that the poor do not want to work,” he said. “It is far more likely to be children of favored families rather than the poor …”
Then there was a question period and Kennedy was better than he ever is with prepared speeches. Some of the kids were nasty and bitter, and after one particularly snotty question, Kennedy said, with a tired voice, “What we need in the country is to cut down the belligerence. If we let this hatred and emotion control our lives, we’re lost.”
“It’s our lives!” one of the Peace and Freedom kids yelled.
Kennedy talked about the draft, as he always does with college audiences, and tried again to say to them that if they really oppose the war, if they were against the draft, they should follow their consciences on the matter. “But you also have to face the consequences of your actions,” he said. This never goes over well, because most of these kids have grown up believing that there are no consequences to their actions. (Joel Oppenheimer once explained why he can’t take potheads seriously: “The drinker pays with a hangover. The junkie pays with a big habit. The pothead never pays.”)
Kennedy’s line of argument infuriated the Peace and Freedom kids. They shouted and booed and interrupted both questions and answers. “You fascist pig!” one kid said (seriously). Others threw tantrums, like nine-year-olds being asked to clean up after a birthday party. They looked as if they wanted to kill somebody, and they were in the same ugly mood when the evening ended and Kennedy made his way outside to the convertible.
A group of them stationed themselves on the school overpass, and as Kennedy’s car started moving they unleashed a barrage of small stones, pebbles, apple cores, and other debris. This was in the name of social and racial justice, of course. Kennedy was not hit, but he slid down into the seat. Fred Dutton, of Kennedy’s staff, was hit on the head. The kids were ranting on the overpass, and I tried to get up there. The cops sealed it off. Kennedy’s car disappeared into the quiet side streets, heading for the Ambassador Hotel and some sleep.
I don’t believe that those young people were just an obscure case, hardened up by the barbarities of Marxist prose. No. They were the truest children of the Johnson era, because if the past few dirty years have taught us anything, they have taught us how to hate. Hatred on the left is even more vile and disgusting than hatred on the right, because it clothes itself in the rhetoric of decency. All those people sitting around the West Side getting their I-hate-Bobby rocks off are not much different from the George Wallace animals; they just think that their hatred is purer. They’ve made Kennedy into Savanarola and McCarthy into Francis of Assisi and when the primaries are over, the hatred will go even wider, hitting Humphrey and Rockefeller and Nixon too.
I think Kennedy is a decent man; he is the only politician now functioning on a national level who presents at least the possibility of bringing us back from the brink of race war; personally, he is the only politician I know who has never lied to me. He’ll have my vote no matter how many potential Walt Rostows now are attaching themselves to his campaign. But it would be self-deception of the worst kind to believe that any single man will save America. Kennedy alone will not do it; McCarthy can’t and Nixon would only push us into a seething cauldron, like Mexico about 1917. It’s too late for fairy tales, especially when we tell them to ourselves. I enjoy funny hats, balloons, campaign songs, and the rest of it. But 562 American men were slaughtered in Vietnam last week. They are what politics is about this year. The smug, pampered, self-righteous kid who takes rocks into the darkness of an overpass and pelts a candidate with them is only a step away from picking up a Mannlicher Carcano with a telescopic sight. He is what politics is about in 1968 too. The cold dumbness of the pragmatists killed those kids in Vietnam. The Cocktail Party Left with its nasty little sophistries and its thrall at the prospect of violence put the rocks in those kids’ hands. I’d like to see America saved, but that’s not going to happen until all of us, the left even more than the right, begin to de-escalate our capacity for glib hatreds. Politics used to be our national clown show; but it has become an ugly confrontation between armies of opposing haters, and if it keeps going that way, we’re doomed. ♦
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2020