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The Election-High Is a Bad Trip

The Press of Freedom: The Election-High Is a Bad Trip

Many of my friends expected to be in concentration camps by the end of summer. Some expected to be gunned down dramatically in the streets of Chicago in August while yippie-ing at the Death Convention. These visions lead to caution, and one some­times feels like he is living in Russia in the early part of the century.

There is a knock at the door. It could be the agent with our number up, and it could be a messenger bringing the news that Kennedy and McCarthy are going to fight it out for leader­ship of the anti-war movement! What a fuckedup country — we expected concentration camps and we got Bobby Kennedy.

I am more confident of our ability to survive concentration camps than I am of our ability to survive Bobby. Concentration camps capture our bodies tem­porarily but set our spirits screaming; Bobby injects a nerve gas into our veins, putting our body and spirit to sleep. The media overwhelm us with the reality of Bobby and Gene, and drug us into identification with THEIR thoughts, arguments, trips, crusades.

Elections in America are a mind-poison.

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The energy for a mass, people movement in which we begin to trust our own ideas and impulses, depend on our own strength, face the dilemma of making our own world … that energy is oozed out of us as we become voters, door-to-door vote sales­men, and spectators in the country’s greatest theatrical event: the elections.

Elections are authoritarian, the subjects elect their kings.

What’s wrong with America is that her total institutions overwhelm her people into impotence and isolation. We all live the dream of the celebrity-candidate. Yet only massive populist revo­lution can liberate the imprison­ed soul of the people of America. Revolution is not a result, but a process. In revolution man liberates himself and becomes free, creating and discovering his own identity.

Elections are modeled after the sports world. That’s why they are so mind-capturing. Candidates compete in contests which build up drama and suspense as The Day approaches. We are all baseball fans who vote for our team. The winner!  The loser! The front pages read like the sports pages. We the masses do not participate; we give consent; we argue; we root; we take sides; but we are little more than bystanders in a mass athletic spectacle and it’s called democracy.

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The twinkles in Bobby’s eye compete with the dark brows of McCarthy’s face compete with LBJ’s large nose competes with the uncompleted sexual act of JFK competes with Dick the Car Salesman competes with Johnny Carson competes with … is this what the Founding Fathers intended?

The most aware action toward the elections is (1) not to vote; (2) to vote for yourself, a na­tional “Vote for Me” campaign; (3) to vote for a close friend. The yippies may nominate a 300-pound pig for president. His pro­gram is garbage. After nomination we will eat him and be­come the candidate. The only answer to an absurd system is absurdity and laughter, followed by anger, and then absurdity and laughter. Anything else is playing by their rules, and their rules are oppressive and fixed­-in-advance.

I ran as a candidate for mayor of Berkeley last spring and fell almost unconsciously under the drug of the election-system. In order to answer the streetcorner question: “Are you serious?” — sort of a pre-condition for people listening to you — I had to concentrate on the commodity, soap-disguised-as-votes. I should have said I wasn’t serious. I should have used the election purely as a stage for farcical theatre. I should have dropped out of the race a week before the election and encouraged peo­ple to vote for themselves.

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The purpose of political life is to free the spirit and energy of man. Vietnam is a symptom of the American disease; the war is a symbol of violence and domination less dramatic. Vietnam is the mirror to understanding Detroit and South Africa. Our goal is to transform the quality of American life, the distribution of power, the content of the culture, the forms of decision-making, the top-heavy organization of institutions, and the tiny influence individuals have over their own lives.

Dealing with repression is far easier than dealing with tolera­tion and sweet bureaucracy. In reaction to the LBJ madness, America may be due for a national regeneration, a new FDR­-type period, the end of wild rule by guys like Hershey and Hoover, and the triumph of pub­lic relations-liberal parents-dol­lar-capitalism. This will mean a crisis for the repression-atrocity­-oriented movement. For whites the alternative is a national youth underground with new val­ues and life-styles — the pot ciga­rette its symbol — an under­ground exploding in creation but badly seeking definition.

In the end, however, reform will lead to revolution. America proposes to us, but she cannot  complete her promises. Reform creates hope, widens expectations, and then an inch demands a mile. JFK was a creator of the New Left. Bobby is going to invite us over for dinner and we are going to sleep with his wife, give his kids pot, and steal his money and send it to guerrillas at home and abroad. Today’s shaved nice McCarthy-RFK collegians will be tomorrow’s yippies.

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Thinking About the ’60s: RFK and the Frontier of the Possible

The Populist President Who Might Have Been 

NINETEEN SIXTY-EIGHT was the Year of the Locust. Two of the noblest citizens of the 20th century — Robert Ken­nedy and Martin Luther King — were murdered eight weeks apart. Today, as we wonder why we have no he­roic leaders to inspire us, we still pay the price of this loss.

In 1968 the Vietnam War continued to escalate, and 12,000 body bags came home. The Soviet Union invaded Czecho­slovakia to crush a revolt of workers who wanted more freedom. Two future law­breakers — Richard Nixon and Spiro Ag­new — were elected president and vice­-president on a platform that promised law and order. Nixon and George Wallace together received 57 per cent of the popu­lar vote, heralding a new majority against justice. The New Left, of such great promise, went over the edge, into vio­lence, nihilism, and apocalyptic buffoon­ery. The Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society started making bombs and vandalizing libraries. Jerry Rubin started calling Sirhan Sirhan a freedom fighter.

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My memoir of Robert Kennedy was written against the drumbeat of these unhappy events. I can still recall compos­ing the last despairing paragraphs on Christmas Eve of 1968, as I listened to Joan Baez and Aretha Franklin. Twenty years ago, realizing that my generation had been cheated of its full cycle of inno­cence and optimism, I wrote:

“Now I realize what makes our genera­tion unique, what defines us apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961 and those who came after the murderous spring of 1968. We are the first generation that learned from experi­ence, in our innocent 20s, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt by the time we reached 30 that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could provide, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.”

It is now 20 years since Robert Kenne­dy’s assassination, and I feel these words are still true-perhaps more true than ever before. Robert Kennedy’s assassina­tion is a wound that hurts more, not less, as time passes. It was an amputation.

In the 20 intervening years since Rob­ert Kennedy’s rendezvous with Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel kitchen pantry, we have learned more about Robert Kenne­dy, not all of it flattering. We know more about Marilyn Monroe, the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, the recruitment of mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro.

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We have also been witness to a series of extraordinary events, which flowed from the sea-change election of Richard Nixon in 1968 instead of Robert Kenne­dy, who I still believe would have been elected president that year had he not been killed. We have lived through the killing of students at Kent State Univer­sity and Jackson State University in May 1970; the murder of Salvador Allende in Chile; the nolo contendere plea and resig­nation of Spiro Agnew; Watergate and Nixon’s resignation on the eve of im­peachment; an era of selfishness and nar­cissism baptized as the “Me Decade” by Tom Wolfe; and the epidemic of greed without guilt that led to the insider trad­ing scandals and the Wall Street crash. The symbolic personalities of our time have become Ivan Boesky, Colonel Oliver North, and Reverend Jim Bakker. Once they were Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and the Beatles.

So even though I understand more about Robert Kennedy’s errors and im­perfections today, I cherish him more, because we can now measure him more realistically against the horizon of histo­ry, against so many leaders of lesser quality who came after him.

When Robert Kennedy died, Tom Hayden, a romantic radical, and Mayor Richard Daley, a city machine boss, wept. Two months later, Hayden and Daley would lead opposing armies of the night into combat against each other out­side the 1968 Democratic convention which would have nominated Robert Kennedy. Only a Robert Kennedy could have touched two such fiercely opposite men so deeply during the Year of the Locust.

“When politics goes well,” wrote Har­vard professor Michael Sandel, “we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”

Robert Kennedy helped us, as a nation, to briefly know a good in common.

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THE CAUSES that Robert Kennedy stood for have awaited a leader of his depth and reach since he died. There has been no white political leader to take his place as a pas­sionate tribune for minority empower­ment, for the rights of Indians and Chica­nos, for human rights in Latin America, for the dismantling of apartheid, for limi­tation of nuclear weapons, for a national commitment to abolish hunger, to rebuild the urban slums, to control handguns, and to reduce the violence of civilization.

The murder of Robert Kennedy left a void. No one came after him who could speak simultaneously for the unemployed black teenager and the white worker trapped in a dead-end job and feeling misunderstood. Robert Kennedy had the right equilibrium between race and class within liberalism.

One day, during the Indiana primary of 1968, I rode in a car behind Robert Ken­nedy through the racially divided and tense steel town of Gary, Indiana. Rich­ard Hatcher, the black mayor, was bal­anced on one side of Kennedy, and Tony Zale, the Slavic warrior who came out of Gary’s blast furnaces to twice win the middleweight boxing championship, was braced on the other side of the candidate. The open car rode through the white side of Gary, and the black side, and Kennedy said precisely the same thing to both races: jobs were better than welfare, we had to be tough on crime, riots were no solution to problems, America should negotiate a peace in Vietnam, every citizen had an equal right to dignity. The reaction was equally enthusiastic in each side of the city. But ever since 1968, no national candidate has been able to replicate that pilgrimage of reconciliation. Since 1968, Wallace, Agnew, and Reagan have worked one side of town, and Rever­end Jesse Jackson the other.

The values Kennedy preached and practiced were the antithesis of the val­ues enshrined by fashion during the 1970s and 1980s. His message was sacri­fice, change, community, compassion, and the rejection of material comfort as the meaning of life. Kennedy told blacks that with rights come responsibilities for discipline, education, and self-help. He told college students that it was unfair to have a draft deferment just because their parents were affluent enough to send them to college. He told corporation ex­ecutives they had a moral obligation to help the poor and powerless. He told peo­ple things they didn’t want to hear.

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Part of Kennedy’s greatness as a leader was that he did not capitulate to the traumatic craziness of his times. The as­sassination of his brother could have been reason for him to give in to nihilism, or cynicism, or paranoia. Instead, Robert Kennedy, like Martin Luther King and John Lennon, discovered through inner struggle the frontier of the possible dur­ing the 1960s.

John Lennon’s frontier of the possible can be imagined by listening to the lyrics of songs such as “All You Need Is Love,” “Working Class Hero,” and “Revolution.” Martin Luther King defined his frontier of the possible by keeping faith with inte­gration and nonviolence, while simulta­neously evolving from a civil rights leader to antiwar prophet, to organizer of the Poor People’s Campaign, to a champion of labor and the sanitation [unclear] that ultimately drew him to Memphis. Robert Kennedy’s possibility was his al­most mystical communion with the dis­possessed of all colors, and the majority electoral coalitions he was able to create against Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, and Eugene McCarthy, in places as different as Indiana, South Da­kota, and California.

Kennedy’s skill as a leader was also partially rooted in certain character and psychological traits. His capacity to grow and change, which I almost took for granted 20 years ago, now seems singular in modern politicians.

Media consultants, pollsters, and speechwriters regularly counterfeit new images of old politicians. We have seen the New Nixon, the New Reagan, the New Gephardt, the New Hart, the New Robertson, the New Bush.

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Robert Kennedy was internally trans­formed by direct human experience. He was an open, contemporary, passionate person: more Boston than Harvard, more ’60s, at the end, than ’50s. Neat rows of statistics on a briefing card didn’t move him. But one visit to Bed-Stuy in Brook­lyn, with its unemployed men loitering on street corners, its plague of heroin addic­tion, its deficit of hope, compelled Ken­nedy to spend four years creating a model community development project known as Bed-Stuy Restoration. And one jour­ney to Delano, California, with its sights, sounds, and smells, converted Kennedy into a lifelong friend of the Farm Work­ers’ Union.

Robert Kennedy was capable of real change because he could admit error, to himself and to the rest of us. He admitted he’d been wrong about Vietnam. He ad­mitted he’d been mistaken about McCar­thyism in the 1950s. He admitted he’d been slow to realize the historical importance of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, when he was attorney gener­al. But he didn’t just acknowledge his mistake about civil rights. He became the white political leader most committed to black equality and dignity.

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

Robert Kennedy was always in a state of becoming. What makes his absence so painful is that he was only 42 years old when he was murdered, and his becoming was far from finished.

Robert Kennedy was also tough, really tough. He was not a fake tough guy like Rambo, or Bernhard Goetz, or Elliott Abrams. And he did not advocate fake­-tough solutions like Gramm-Rudman budget cuts, or capital punishment, or scapegoating Asians, or bullying Grenada.

Robert Kennedy was tough with adversaries his own size. The public policy disputes he engaged in were with Jimmy Hoffa over mob control of the Teamsters Union; with George Wallace over segrega­tion and racism; with J. Edgar Hoover over the FBI’s abuse of power; with Lyn­don Johnson over the war in Vietnam.

And Robert Kennedy was tough on himself, constantly improving himself, rethinking his assumptions, never taking himself too seriously, always making sure he had the smartest, the most challenging people around him. Robert Kennedy was ahead of his time on many issues. In 1957, as chief counsel to the McClellan Committee, he first argued that organized crime had a strangle­hold on the Teamsters Union and its rich pension funds. Thirty years later, in May 1987, Roy Williams, the former Team­sters president who had been convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery, admitted that this was the fact.

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During the mid-1980s, after Bishop Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize, apartheid became a central moral issue in America and around the world. But in June 1966, Robert Kennedy gave perhaps his greatest speech, in Johannesburg, to 15,000 students. In words that revealed his own existential notion of politics, Kennedy said:

“Let no one be discouraged by the be­lief there is nothing one man or one wom­an can do against the enormous array of the world’s ill — against misery and igno­rance, injustice and violence … Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or strikes out against injustice, or acts to improve the lot of others, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Today in South Africa, as the earth’s mightiest wall of oppression cracks and shakes, this 22-year-old speech is quoted again and again.

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But don’t misunderstand. Robert Ken­nedy was not a perfectly consistent man. He was not some trendy flit on the mar­gin of liberal fashion. He had a streak of thought that might be considered conser­vative by some, although not by me. He believed in the work ethic, in country, in family, in the rule of law. His philosophy was a sometimes unpredictable synthesis of Camus, Pope John, Vince Lombardi, and Aeschylus. Robert Kennedy was religious in his way, and there was a spiritual dimension to his politics that came from this faith. And after his brother’s assassi­nation, he developed a tragic view of life, a private melancholy similar to Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s. Kennedy was patriotic. He felt pride in America and never understood the anti­-Americanism of parts of the left. He perceived the essential distinction between patriotism and nationalism. I don’t know if Kennedy ever read George Orwell’s 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” but it describes the difference perfectly. Orwell wrote:

“By ‘nationalism,’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions, or tens of mil­lions of people can confidently be labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism … since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean a devotion to a par­ticular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world, but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is insep­arable from the the desire for power …

“It can plausibly be argued, for instance — it is even probably — that patriotism is an innoculation against nationalism.” It is impossible for me to imagine that Kennedy the patriot would have sold ar­maments to the terrorists who were im­plicated in killing hundreds of U.S. Ma­rines in Lebanon.

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THE MOST UPLIFTING SIGHT and the most agonizing sight I have seen in American politics both involved Robert Kennedy in June 1968.

June 4, 1968, was the day of the California primary. I got up early and drove around Los Angeles, visiting polling loca­tions. Blacks and Chicanos were, by repu­tation, supposed to be indifferent voters, especially in primaries. But on this day I saw block-long lines of blacks and Latins waiting to vote for Robert Kennedy with hope in their eyes. In Watts, burned by riot three years before, blacks got on line to vote an hour before the polls opened. In some Mexican-American neighbor­hoods the turnout for this Irish millionaire was 95 per cent, higher even than in middle-class precincts where participation had been a pattern for generations.

Since June 1968, fewer and fewer Americans have voted for president in each election, despite massive campaigns of voter registration. But in my mind’s eye I still see those patient lines of mostly poor people who got up before the sun because they believed they had something to vote for, an individual who might make their lives better.

The saddest sight I have seen in Amer­ican politics was the view from Robert Kennedy’s funeral train, as it traveled through New Jersey toward Washington on Saturday, June 8, 1968. I saw tens of thousands of poor blacks, already bereft from the loss of Martin Luther King, weeping and waving good-bye on one side of the railroad tracks. And tens of thousands of almost-poor whites on the other side of the train, waving American flags, standing at attention, hands over their hearts, tears running down their faces. To this day I keep searching for one more leader who might reconcile and reunite those two injured classes, still trapped on separate sides of the railroad tracks that run through the American Dream. ■

On April 1, New American Library will publish a new edition of Jack Newfield’s Robert Kennedy: A Memoir, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles in June 1968. Newfield has written a new introduction to his book, and this week the Voice is publishing it, slightly revised. 

1988 Village Voice article by Jack Newfield about how history changed in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated

1988 Village Voice article by Jack Newfield about how history changed in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated

1988 Village Voice article by Jack Newfield about how history changed in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

America in the Eye of the Telescope Site

In Transit

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.”

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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.

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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?”

“Sure.”

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?”

“No.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …”

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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.

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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. ♦

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

RFK, Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah

Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah
June 13, 1968

LOS ANGELES — It was, of course, two minutes to midnight and the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel was rowdy with triumph. Red and blue balloons drifted up through three golden chandeliers to bump against a gilded ceiling. Young girls with plastic Kennedy boaters chanted like some lost reedy chorus from an old Ray Charles record. The crowd was squashed against the bandstand, a smear of black faces and Mexican-American faces and bearded faces and Beverly Hills faces crowned with purple hair. Eleven TV cameras were turning, their bright blue arclights changing the crowd into a sweaty stew. Up on the bandstand, with his wife standing just behind him, was Robert Kennedy.

“I’d like to express my high regard for Don Drysdale,” Kennedy said. Drysdale had just won his sixth straight shutout. “I hope we have his support in this campaign.” There was a loud cheer. He thanked Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier (cheers) and Jesse Unruh (timid cheer) and Cesar Chavez (very loud cheers), and he thanked the staff and the volunteers and the voters, and the crowd hollared after every sentence. It was the sort of scene that Kennedys have gone through a hundred times and more: on this night, at least, it did not appear that there would be a last hurrah. Kennedy had not scored a knockout over Eugene McCarthy; but a points decision at least would keep his campaign going.

“I thank all of you,” Kennedy was saying. “Mayor Yorty has just sent a message that we have been here too long already” (laughter). “So my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago …”

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I was at the rear of the stand, next to George Plimpton. Kennedy put his thumb up to the audience, brushed his hair, made a small V with his right hand, and turned to leave. The crowd started shouting: “We want Bobby! We want Bobby!” Plimpton and I went down three steps, and turned left through a gauntlet of Kennedy volunteers and private cops in brown uniforms.

We found ourselves in a long grubby area called the pantry. It was the sort of place where Puerto Ricans, blacks and Mexican-Americans usually work to fill white stomachs. There were high bluish fluorescent lights strung across the ceiling, a floor of raw sandy-colored concrete, pale dirty walls. On the right were a rusty ice machine and shelves filled with dirty glasses. On the left, an archway led into the main kitchen and under the arch a crowd of Mexican American cooks and busboys waited to see Kennedy. Against the left wall, three table-sized serving carts stood end to end, and at the far end were two doors leading to the press room where Kennedy was going to talk to reporters.

Kennedy moved slowly into the area, shaking hands, smiling, heading a platoon of reporters, photographers, staffers, the curious, TV men. I was in front of him, walking backward. I saw him turn to his left and shake the hand of a small Mexican cook. We could still hear the chants of “We want Bobby!” from the Embassy Room. The cook was smiling and pleased.

Then a pimply messenger arrived from the secret filthy heart of America. He was curly haired, wearing a pale blue sweatshirt and bluejeans, and he was planted with his right foot forward and his right arm straight out and he was firing a gun.

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The scene assumed a kind of insane fury, all jump cuts, screams, noise, hurtling bodies, blood. The shots went pap-pap-pap-pap-pap, small sharp noises like a distant firefight or the sound of firecrackers in a backyard. Rosey Grier of the Los Angeles Rams came from nowhere and slammed his great bulk into the gunman, crunching him against a serving table. George Plimpton grabbed the guy’s arm, and Rafer Johnson moved to him, right behind Bill Barry, Kennedy’s friend and security chief, and they were all making deep animal sounds and still the bullets came.

“Get the gun, get the gun.”

“Rafer, get the gun!”

“Get the fucking gun!”

“No,” someone said. And you could hear the stunned horror in the voice, the replay of odd scenes, the muffle of drums. “No. No. Nooooooooooo!”

We knew then that America had struck again. In this slimy little indoor alley in the back of a gaudy ballroom, in this shabby reality behind the glittering facade, Americans were doing what they do best: killing and dying, and cursing because hope doesn’t last very long among us.

I saw Kennedy lurch against the ice machine, and then sag, and then fall forward slowly, to be grabbed by someone, and I knew then that he was dead. He might linger a few hours, or a few days; but his face reminded me somehow of Benny Paret the night Emile Griffith hammered him into unconsciousness. Kennedy’s face had a kind of sweet acceptance to it, the eyes understanding that it had come to him, the way it had come to so many others before him. The price of the attempt at excellence was death. You saw a flicker of that understanding on his face, as his life seeped out of a hole in the back of his skull, to spread like spilled wine across the scummy concrete floor.

It was as if all of us there went simultaneously insane: a cook was screaming, “Kill him, kill him now, kill him, kill him!” I tried to get past Grier, Johnson, Plimpton and Barry to get at the gunman. The Jack Ruby in me was rising up, white, bright, with a high-singing sound in the ears, and I wanted to damage that insane little bastard they were holding. I wanted to break his face, to rip away flesh, to hear bone break as I pumped punches into that pimpled skin. Budd Schulberg was next to me; I suppose he was trying to do the same. Just one punch. Just one for Dallas. Just one for Medgar Evers, just one for Martin Luther King. Just one punch. Just one. One.

Kennedy was lying on the floor, with black rosary beads in his hand, and blood on his fingers. His eyes were still open, and as his wife Ethel reached him, to kneel in an orange-and-white dress, his lips were moving. We heard nothing. Ethel smoothed his face, running ice cubes along his cheeks. There was a lot of shouting, and a strange chorus of high screaming. My notes showed that Kennedy was shot at 12:10 and was taken out of that grubby hole at 12:32. It seemed terribly longer.

I don’t remember how it fits into the sequence, but I do have one picture of Rosey Grier holding the gunman by his neck, choking life out of him.

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“Rosey, Rosey, don’t kill him. We want him alive. Don’t kill him, Rosey, don’t kill him.”

“Kill the bastard, kill that sum of a bitch bastard,” a Mexican busboy yelled.

“Don’t kill him, Rosey.”

“Where’s the doctor? Where in Christ’s name is the doctor?”

Grier decided not to kill the gunman. They had him up on a serving table at the far end of the pantry, as far as they could get him from Kennedy. Jimmy Breslin and I were standing up on the table, peering into the gunman’s face. His eyes were rolling around, and then stopping, and then rolling around again. The eyes contained pain, flight, entrapment, and a strange kind of bitter endurance. I didn’t want to hit him anymore.

“Where the fuck is the doctor? Can’t they get a fucking doctor?”

“Move back.”

“Here comes a doctor, here’s a doctor.”

“MOVE BACK!”

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Kennedy was very still now. There was a thin film of blood on his brow. They had his shoes off and his shirt open. The stretcher finally arrived, and he trembled as they lifted him, his lips moved, and the flashbulbs blinked off one final salvo and he was gone.

The rest was rote: I ran out out into the lobby and picked up my brother Brian and we rushed to the front entrance. A huge black man, sick with grief and anger and bitterness, was throwing chairs around. Most landed in the pool. The young Kennedy girls were crying and wailing, knowing, I suppose, what the guys my age discovered in Dallas: youth was over. “Sick,” one girl kept saying. “Sick. Sick. What kind of country is this? Sick. Sick.” Outside, there were cops everywhere, and sirens. The cops were trying to get one of the wounded into a taxi. The cabbie didn’t want to take him, afraid, I suppose, that blood would sully his nice plastic upholstery.

When we got through the police barricades, we drove without talk to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, listening to the news on the radio. The unspoken thought was loudest: the country’s gone. Medgar Evers was dead, Malcolm X was dead, Martin Luther King was dead, Jack Kennedy was dead, and now Robert Kennedy was dying. The hell with it. The hatred was now general. I hated that pimpled kid in that squalid cellar enough to want to kill him. He hated Kennedy the same way. That kid and the bitter Kennedy haters were the same. All those people in New York who hated Kennedy’s guts, who said “eccch” when his name was mentioned, the ones who creamed over Murray Kempton’s vicious diatribes these past few months: they were the same. When Evers died, when King died, when Jack Kennedy died, all the bland pundits said that some good would come of it in some way, that the nation would go through a catharsis, that somehow the bitterness, the hatred, the bigotry, the evil of racism, the glib violence would be erased. That was bullshit. We will have our four-day televised orgy of remorse about Robert Kennedy and then it will be business as usual.

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You could feel that as we drove through the empty L.A. streets, listening to the sirens screaming in the night. Nothing would change. Kennedy’s death would mean nothing. It was just another digit in the great historical pageant that includes the slaughter of Indians, the plundering of Mexico, the enslavement of black people, the humiliation of Puerto Ricans. Just another digit. Nothing would come of it. While Kennedy’s life was ebbing out of him, Americans were dropping bombs and flaming jelly on Orientals. While the cops fingerprinted the gunmen, Senator Eastland’s Negro subjects were starving. While the cops made chalk marks on the floor of the pantry, the brave members of the National Rifle Association were already explaining that people commit crimes, guns don’t (as if Willie Mays could hit a homerun without a bat). These cowardly bums claim Constitutional rights to kill fierce deer in the forests, and besides, suppose the niggers come to the house and we don’t have anything to shoot them with? Suppose we have to fight a nigger man-to-man?

America the Beautiful: with crumby little mini-John Waynes carrying guns to the woods like surrogate penises. Yes: the kid I saw shoot Kennedy was from Jordan, was diseased with some fierce hatred for Jews. Sam Yorty, who hated Kennedy, now calls Kennedy a great American and blames the Communists. Hey Sam: you killed him too. The gun that kid carried was American. The city where he shot down a good man was run by Sam Yorty. How about keeping your fat pigstink mouth shut.

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At the approach to the Good Samaritan Hospital the cops had strung red flares across the gutter, and were stopping everyone. A crowd of about 75 people were on the corner when we arrived, about a third of them black. I went in, past those black people who must have felt that there was no white man at all with whom they could talk. A mob of reporters was assembling at the hospital entrance. The cops were polite, almost gentle, as if they sensed that something really bad had happened, and that many of these reporters were friends of the dying man.

Most of the hospital windows were dark, and somewhere up there Robert Kennedy was lying on a table while strangers stuck things into his brain looking for a killer’s bullet. We were friends, and I didn’t want him to die but if he were to be a vegetable, I didn’t want him to live either.

We drove home, through the wastelands around L.A. and the canyons through the mountains to the south. When I got home, my wife was asleep, the TV still playing out its record of the death watch. Frank Reynolds of ABC, a fine reporter and a compassionate man, was so upset he could barely control his anger. I called some friends and poured a drink. Later I talked to my old man, who came to this country from Ireland in flight from the Protestant bigots of Belfast 40 years ago. I suppose he loved John Kennedy even more than I did and he has never really been the same since Dallas. Now it had happened again.

“If you see Teddy,” he said, “tell him to get out of politics. The Kennedys are too good for this country.”

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I remembered the night in 1964, in that bitter winter after John Kennedy’s murder, when Robert Kennedy appeared at a St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He talked about the Irish, and the long journey that started on the quays of Wexford and ended in Parkland Hospital. He reminded them of the days when there were signs that said “No Irish Need Apply” (and it was always to his greatest dismay that so many sons of Irishmen he came across in New York were bigots and haters). Bob told them about Owen O’Neill, an Irish patriot whose ideals had survived his martyrdom. Men were crying as he read the old Irish ballad:

Oh, why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die? …
We’re sheep without a shepherd,
When the snow shuts out the sky.
Oh, why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die?

I didn’t know. There was some sort of answer for John Kennedy, and another for Robert Kennedy. But I had learned that I knew nothing finally, that when my two young daughters present the bill to me in another 10 years, I won’t have much to say. I sat there drinking rum until I was drunk enough to forget that pimpled face cracking off the rounds into the body of a man who was a friend of mine. Finally, easily, with the sun up, I fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t have any tears left for America, but I suppose not many other Americans did either. ♦

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

“We Want Bobby!” Robert F. Kennedy’s Final Minutes

The June 6, 1968, issue of the Village Voice reported on the shooting of Andy Warhol by a disgruntled wannabe playwright, which took place on June 3. Media moved at a slower pace back then, and so there is no mention in the Voice that the madness of the times had also once again caught up with the Kennedys — Bobby had been shot early on the morning of June 5 in Los Angeles, after winning the California primary. By the Voice cover date of June 6, RFK had already died from his wounds. But on the back page of the paper, the candidate is still alive — as his canvassers prepared for the June 18 New York primary contest.

What if Kennedy had survived and Warhol had died? We wouldn’t have the artist’s late, great “Shadows” series, but how different would America’s political and social history be? Richard Nixon, who had lost the presidency to Bobby’s brother John in 1960, would go on to defeat Hubert Humphrey by a razor-thin margin, in 1968. Could the underhanded Republican have beaten the surging RFK? On March 22, shortly after entering the presidential race, Bobby told students at Vanderbilt University, “Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit.” And indeed, the famously paranoid president would prove Kennedy right when he resigned in disgrace, in 1974 — but not before he had managed to sow more tribal hatreds across the land with his divisive racial policies and secret escalations of the Vietnam War.

Mailer had been correct in his hope, back in 1964, that the notoriously ruthless and pragmatic RFK might be capable of growth and change. In the documentary The Sixties — The Years That Shaped a Generation, Frank Mankiewicz, an aide to RFK, tells this story: “I think one thing that happened to him was that his brother was murdered. I think that had a profound impact on him. On an airplane during the campaign, someone asked him — may have been Jack Newfield — ‘What’s your position on capital punishment?’ And he said, ‘I’m against it.’ And whoever it was said, ‘When you were at the Justice Department that wasn’t your position, when you were attorney general.’ And he said, ‘Well, then I hadn’t read Camus.’ ”

It is the rare American politician who cites a French journalist/philosopher/novelist as a powerful influence on his thinking.

Along with the rest of the nation, the Voice mourned Kennedy’s passing, not least with a beautiful, elegiac portrait of RFK that staff photographer Fred McDarrah had taken on the Lower East Side a few months earlier. Both Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield reported from the scene of the assassination.

Newfield wrote of his memories of the campaign: “Kennedy quietly reading the Old Testament as a private gesture of irreverence all through the three-hour funeral mass for Cardinal Spellman. Kennedy sitting in his Manhattan apartment and reading me a poem from Emerson. Kennedy visiting a migrant worker camp near Buffalo, and walking right past the manager who held a gun, and into a rotting trailer that was home for 10 migrants. Kennedy pausing while campaigning in Brooklyn in front of a small girl with glasses and suddenly saying, ‘My little girl wears glasses too. And I love her very much.’ Kennedy visiting a hospital for retarded children in Westchester last January, and impulsively taking 16 patients for a ride to buy ice cream, while doctors and aides panicked. If I had written these things two weeks ago, The Voice would have been deluged with letters calling me a whore. Now such anecdotes fill the papers and the networks, and no one doubts them.”

Newfield concluded on a note of tremendous sadness, describing the funeral train that carried RFK’s body from New York to Washington, D.C. “Robert Kennedy was not a saint. He was a politician who could talk about law and order in Indiana. But anyone who rode on his funeral train last Saturday, and looked out at the rows of wounded black faces that lingered on the poor side of the tracks, knew what might have been. The stone is once again at the bottom of the hill and we are alone.”

Hamill was much angrier:

All those people in New York who hated Kennedy’s guts, who said “eccch” when his name was mentioned, the ones who creamed over Murray Kempton’s vicious diatribes these past few months: they were the same. When Evers died, when King died, when Jack Kennedy died, all the bland pundits said that some good would come of it in some way, that the nation would go through a catharsis, that somehow the bitterness, the hatred, the bigotry, the evil of racism, the glib violence would be erased. That was bullshit. We will have our four-day televised orgy of remorse about Robert Kennedy and then it will be business as usual.

The Voices on-the-spot reporting of RFK’s campaign — Hamill was just a few feet away from Bobby when the assassin fired the shots — accomplished journalism’s mandate to be the first draft of history. Now we can look back on RFK as a comet of hope, a brief blaze of what might have been. Maybe 1968 could have been a time when the divisions in America began to be bridged, rather than hacked more permanently into the landscape by Nixon and his henchmen. It is the saddest of golden anniversaries, and we must face the fact that things turned out the way they did. But we are still fortunate to be here, alive in the current moment, though it’s one that holds at least as many dangers to democracy and decency as in Bobby Kennedy’s time. If his legacy is to mean anything, we must pick up the promises he represented and continue the arduous work of making them come true.

To read about the Voice’s coverage of Robert Kennedy prior to his assassination, click here.

 

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images Uncategorized

Bobby the K: Robert Kennedy Comes to New York

Throughout the 1960s, the Village Voice, like much of the American media, was fascinated by the Kennedy family. In a sense, the paper’s coverage of Robert F. Kennedy began with an endorsement of his brother John for president, in 1960: “The somnolent 1950’s will come to an end next week. We slept through them almost to the point of the Big Sleep, and when we were not dormant we frittered away our energies and let others steal our liberties in the most mirthless decade of them all. We assume that the election of John F. Kennedy, whom we support without reservation, will bring the decade to an end.… It never seemed credible to us, even from the beginning, that [Richard] Nixon, the Abominable No Man of our generation, could attain the Presidency.”

Norman Mailer, one of the founders of the Voice, had angrily quit writing for the paper some four years earlier, after his phrase “the nuances of growth” had been mistakenly changed to “the nuisances of growth.” The novelist, already upset with previous “grievous” typesetting errors, used some “fairly sharp words” with his editors: “Certain things were said which can hardly be unsaid.” However, he retained an ownership stake in the paper, and one can imagine the evocative imagery of the endorsement (below) coming at least in part from his pen. In any case, Mailer would in future years write about both Kennedy brothers for the Voice.

John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and Robert, his attorney general, soon after left that office to run for U.S. senator from the state of New York. “There are more of us than there is trouble,” the ever optimistic RFK told a reporter in 1964, upon hearing that his brother Ted had survived a plane crash. “The Kennedys intend to stay in public life. Good luck is something you make, and bad luck is something you endure.”

But more than his accent betrayed RFK’s Boston origins, and there were plenty of folks who labeled him a calculating carpetbagger. Voice writer Nat Hentoff wasn’t particularly concerned with Bobby’s out-of-state roots, and in an essay that, judging by its headline, “Bobby the K,” might have been written about a gangster, granted that as the nation’s top lawman, RFK “did curb some of the more mindlessly zealous viciousness of the Immigration authorities.” But the jazz critic and social-political commentator wasn’t enthusiastic about either Kennedy or the Republican incumbent, Kenneth Keating. “I tried to rationalize a vote for Keating, so eager was I to vote against a man I consider as multiply dangerous as Robert Kennedy,” he wrote. The incumbent senator’s “antic performance” during the Cuban missile crisis and his anti-school-busing stance, however, left Hentoff with no one to vote for. He was not alone in New York in feeling that RFK was too ambitious to be satisfied even if he won the Senate seat, writing in his opinionated piece, “I am bugged when Kennedy beaters of the bush try to con me by pretending New York State is anything but a way-stop for this man on the run.”

As Mary Perot Nichols reported in the following issue, Hentoff wasn’t the only New Yorker who was strongly opposed to Bobby. Gore Vidal, the author and gadfly who never met an ax he wouldn’t happily grind down to a bloody nub, came out hard against RFK’s candidacy. “We believe,” the novelist told the assembled press, “that one of the great myths of current American politics is the widespread belief that Robert Kennedy is a liberal. We believe that he is anti-liberal and disturbingly authoritarian.” By default, Vidal and his friends were thereby supporting the Republican, Keating, who had made it clear he would “never, never” support Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate. These were days of strange political bedfellows.

The following week, Jack Newfield reported in the Voice, “Robert F. Kennedy evoked Beatlemania, laughter, and tears during a tour of Greenwich Village Friday night.” At first, the article reads, the younger Kennedy didn’t connect with the crowd: “Nothing he said struck the nerve that can ignite an adult crowd. John Kennedy’s addresses during the autumn of 1960 were like music from the pen of Duke Ellington; Friday night Bobby lacked even the beat of rock ’n’ roll.” But after a testy exchange about New York’s stop-and-frisk ordinance — “Kennedy snapped, his eyes cold. ‘It’s a state law.’ ” — the crowd was reluctant to let the worn-out candidate leave, and he began shaking hands and signing autographs as the hysteria built. Voice editors used one of Newfield’s observations for the headline — “ ‘Mommy, he touched me,’ a 10-year-old screamed shrilly.” In concluding his take on the long day of campaigning, Newfield returned to his Beatlemania hook: “A disheveled nymphet, clutching an autograph to her almost breasts, sighed, ‘I’d rather have this than Ringo’s.’ ”

The following week the debate continued on the Voice Letters page, with a missive arriving from Taylor Mead — one of the “superstars” then appearing in Andy Warhol’s underground films — which called Kennedy “the James Dean of politics.”

As the election neared, the Voice ran a great Ben Shahn cartoon of Goldwater as an overgrown baby. That same issue also featured Norman Mailer’s riposte to Hentoff.

In an endorsement for the Voice titled, “A Vote for Bobby K. — Possibility of a Hero,” Mailer wrote, “When there first began to be talk, back last winter, of Bobby Kennedy going in against Kenneth Keating, I had the reaction of a prize fight manager who has seen better days: Put down no bets, they’re a couple of bums.” But as he watched the race, the novelist began to change his mind. Although he aptly describes Kennedy as having “the face of a Widmark gunsel,” he also also views the the 39-year-old candidate as someone who can grow and change, “an active principle.” Ultimately, Mailer makes his choice clear, writing, “To vote for a man who is neuter is to vote for the plague. I would rather vote for a man on the assumption he is a hero and have him turn into a monster than vote for a man who can never be a hero.”

In the post-election issue, the Voice was still in some ways as parochial as its slogan, “A Weekly Newspaper of Greenwich Village.” Although RFK won the Senate seat, the paper mainly focused on how he had lagged in the Village, “splitting the 26,000 votes evenly with Kenneth Keating.” Four years later, both the candidate and the paper had grown.

By 1968 the Village Voice was The Weekly Newspaper of New York, and Bobby Kennedy was, as many had predicted in 1964, running for the White House. The Voice’s always on-the-scene photographer Fred McDarrah caught the Irish politician working the crowd during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, wearing what we can only assume was a green boutonniere in his lapel. Below the picture, reporter Jack Newfield chronicled the presidential candidate’s travels in America’s heartland: “The frenzy began as soon as Kennedy arrived in Kansas City at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Three thousand people had waited for two hours to see him, even though all he was scheduled to do was switch from a commercial airliner to Governor Robert Docking’s private plane.… The crowd broke through police lines and charged at Kennedy. It looked like the start of the land rush in Kansas 100 years ago, as hundreds of people, almost all of them young, raced onto the airport runway. Once they reached Kennedy, however, few of them knew what to do — except touch him and scream his name.”

Newfield captured the intense hope that a large part of the electorate was placing in Kennedy as someone who could change the direction of the country, which many felt had been going off the rails since his brother’s assassination, five years earlier. The Vietnam War had broken the resolve of Lyndon Johnson, who declared he would not seek another term as president, opening the door for Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. The Voice, now not only a New York paper but one with a national readership, would report on the whirlwind Democratic campaign — as well as Richard Nixon’s rise on the Republican side.

On April 4, tragedy struck America as that great truth-speaker to power Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, in Memphis, Tennessee. In one of the most powerful speeches in American history, Robert Kennedy broke the news to a largely African American audience in Indianapolis, sharing with them the grief he still felt from the death of his brother:

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And 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.

 

But the campaign continued, and during the next month the Voice reported on both RFK crisscrossing Indiana for the Hoosier State’s primary and the Beatles in New York. Lennon and McCartney were looking stylish in their casual suits, but Jack Newfield reported that Kennedy looked like “a fighter at the end of 15 savage rounds waiting for the judges’ decision. His front tooth was chipped — he’d been pulled out of his car during a motorcade.… His stubby, trembling fingers were red and swollen from a thousand Indiana hands. Exhaustion blotched his skin and thickened his features.” But by the next morning, as Indianians headed for the polls, RFK was up for a rough game of touch football, where he interfered on a pass to Richard Harwood, a reporter playing on the other team. Harwood made the touchdown catch but was angry; Newfield wrote that Harwood told the candidate, “You’re a dirty player, and a lousy one too.” Newfield adds, “Kennedy winced, but later that night, Harwood was one of the few reporters permitted in the suite with Kennedy as the election returns came in.”

Pete Hamill was another reporter the Voice sent out on the campaign trail. In a long essay he grappled with the violence that was sweeping the country, those hatreds that RFK had spoken of in his impromptu elegy for Martin Luther King. Hamill also wrote of meeting a couple who were taking their daughter to see the candidate: “ ‘We never saw President Kennedy in the flesh,’ his wife said. ‘And so we want the little girl to see Bobby.’ ”

Hamill was disturbed by radical kids who threw stones at Kennedy’s car. “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.” Near the end he draws a line from the JFK assassination directly to those violent protestors: “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.”

If hatred was indeed roiling the land, things were a bit calmer in the May 30 Letters section. Taylor Mead was back again, but his ardor for RFK of four years earlier had cooled. Plus, the copy department had made an error in Mead’s letter that they must have been glad hadn’t appeared in a Mailer essay.

The next week, the darkness fell.

 

To continue reading about the Voice’s coverage of Robert Kennedy, following his assassination, click here.