June 5th will mark the 50th anniversary of the violent death of Bobby Kennedy, a presidential candidate felled by Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
History has since defined 1968 as the most tumultuous year of that turbulent decade. Consider the frightening headlines in only the first six months of chaos: North Korea seizes an American naval vessel, holding hostage its 82-man crew for almost a year and nearly provoking a war with the USA; In Viet Nam the Tet offensive turns that conflict in favour of the Communist North; the Kerner Commission warns of a growing divide between black and white America; campus disturbances protesting the war spread across the country as do inner city riots — and, on April 4th, Martin Luther King is killed.
On March 16, in the midst of this unrest, New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy announced he was entering the race to become the Democratic nominee for the Presidency. Less than three months later, he was dead, taking with him the hopes of many Americans that any real change in political leadership might actually arise to address the nation’s ills.
I have just read a remarkable biography of Kennedy’s life (Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Mathews, Simon & Shuster, 2017.) Mathews is better known as the popular host of MSNBC’s Hardball but with this book also proves to be an excellent biographer and historian.
Mathews describes how Bobby struggled under the endless criticism of his father who labelled his seventh child as being too soft and sensitive. As a youth he was quiet and reserved, not as athletic nor good-looking as his older brothers. Joseph Kennedy Sr. had a fierce determination to see one of his sons ascend to the White House—the ultimate revenge against all those who had demeaned the Kennedy family’s poor Irish –Catholic heritage as being suspect and deficient in Protestant New England.
Initially, the family patriarch had placed those hope in his first-born, Joe Jr. Tragically, the young man was killed in the summer of 1944 while flying into France on a dangerous mission against a German V2 rocket factory. Father’s ambition was quickly transferred on to the shoulders of John, at that time a naval war hero himself. Bobby always lived in the shadow of JFK’s subsequent success and charisma. Being content to work brilliantly behind the scenes as a strategist he skillfully (and at times ruthlessly) managed his brother’s political campaigns and ultimately became President Kennedy’s attorney-general.
It was Bobby, more than Jack, who aggressively pushed the Civil Rights agenda, who spoke out against a hopeless war in Viet Nam and who courageously took on Jimmy Hoffa and the mobsters. Yet after his brother’s assassination in 1963, Bobby resisted the loud call to step into those big shoes and seek his country’s highest office. He believed his clan would not be able to cope with another Kennedy death. He was by that time the father of ten children and his wife Ethel was carrying their eleventh.
What changed Bobby’s mind in 1968? Mathews entertains much speculation as to what drove the forty-two year old popular senator to again throw his hat into an even more challenging political ring. One can only imagine the shock and despair felt by then-President Lyndon Johnson. As a rough and often crude Texan, LBJ had inevitably been compared to his sophisticated, charming and handsome predecessor. Now he would have to compete with yet another Kennedy for his party’s 1968 Democratic nomination.
Mathews sets the stage for that contest which, of course, never reached its conclusion. Despite its cruelly-shortened brevity, the primaries did provide Americans with a glimpse of the messiah who would lead them out of despair:
He spoke out on behalf of the poor blacks of the Mississippi Delta, the youth of the inner city, the isolated whites of Appalachia, the California farmworkers, the forgotten Native Americans on reservations. He just seemed to care. When he saw people in trouble he wanted to help.
In our modern era when we tend to view politicians with a mix of skepticism, suspicion or mostly indifference, it may be easy to ignore the impact of Bobby Kennedy’s death on the collective psyche of the “ordinary” American. Younger readers will see him only as another casualty of a long-ago violent decade. In this coming week where Ontario goes to the polls, it would be very timely to watch the You Tube video: RFK-A final Journey. This iconic three minute film clip follows Bobby’s June 8 funeral train from New Jersey to Maryland.
Your unbidden but inevitable tears will be for the thousands who stood silently along the tracks mourning the death of a dream—and also for the absence of a Bobby Kennedy in today’s world of far less-gifted politicians.
Some people see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not?
… Bobby Kennedy 1925 – 1968