I wasn’t going to say a word about the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy. You’ll note that two days have now passed since that less than stellar anniversary was marked.
I got into a bickering contest with a friend, who finds the idea of marking something like a calendar day pointless. Then again, he is absolutely unsentimental about such things and thinks the Kennedys are nothing more than a fairy story. This he backs up by telling me about someone he knew who was a journalist at the time. He reminds me of my dad in that respect, who was also there at the time and has little time for the concept of Kennedy. My dear father also maintains that there’s no way Kennedy would’ve made it to president. “People were tired of the Kennedys by then,” he said to me once.
Maybe that’s true. I’d argue that a journalist and an observer in Britain in 1968 would know less about it than people in America at the time… but by that argument I would also know very little about it, being in Britain decidedly not in 1968. (Against my better judgement, as you know)
I was really quite young when I first discovered the legend of Kennedy. The myths, the legends, the Camelot and New Frontier stories. I got to them through Marilyn Monroe, who I once adored, and the Sinatra Legend. For awhile, I soaked up everything I could and in my youthful naivete I assumed that ‘Jack’ was the important one.
I soon realised that ‘Jack’ represents the side of the Kennedy story that people generally dislike – the inveterate womanising, the ingrained Catholicism, the whisperings of Mafia involvement – you know the legends. I came then to realise that ‘Bobby’ represents the side of the Kennedy story that people generally love – the liberal crusader, slaying the demons of poverty, racism and war with words.
I also realised very quickly that it’s very easy to fall into the Bobby Kennedy myth precisely because of when he was killed. There’s nothing easier than mixing hindsight with wishes… and in this time of vicious government gone Tommy to its people in both America and Britain isn’t it wonderful to look back and say “Well, if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t died none of this would’ve happened!”
Back when I was young and a newly-minted Bobby fan, I attempted to write in the style of Fatherland, something where Kennedy hadn’t been shot. I got a full two sides of paper and had to stop. I could not imagine a world with Bobby Kennedy in it. I hadn’t the historical or political insight to get past that ‘it’d be better’ thing. And even then, I was already cynical enough to know that it probably wouldn’t be better. In fact, it’d probably be just as shite, just in a different way.
Even as a newly-minted Bobby fan I knew the myth I was accepting (if not wholly buying into) was only a myth. I accepted it, because the ideas were more important. As a fan of the delightful Miss Monroe, I had to choose to ignore the conspiracies that suggested Bobby was involved in her killing. I mean, even now I find those conspiracies a little hard to digest, mostly because I believe it much more likely that my girl’s prescriptions were screwed up, or that she took the wrong dosage. Hell, hasn’t the same thing just happened with Heath? I didn’t really believe the Bobby Killed Marilyn story, but I had to actually ignore it to get past it.
I’ve just been reading a series of op-ed pieces from nytimes.com about Senator Kennedy, and they’re all generally pro-Bobby of course… hardly surprising when three of the articles were written by his children. The thing that stayed with me as I read, that has stayed with me through the years since I really learned who he was… it’s the same thing I grieved for on Friday, and the thing I always grieve for.
The extinguishing of the fires of hope in the hearts and souls of people across the globe in 1968. We, the young and foolish of the 21st Century, cannot know the feeling of people in 1967 and 1968. Truly astounding things, good and bad, were happening across the world. Make no mistake, children, these were interesting times. Not interesting in the way ours are, with the economy shit and petrol/gas prices, and food shortages and evil governments… interesting because there was the promise of something better.
The death of Robert Kennedy didn’t kill hope. It was merely one of the nails in the coffin of hope. It was a nail in the coffin just as the murder of Dr King was a nail in the coffin, as the Kent State shootings in 1970 were a nail in the coffin, as Watergate was, as the elections of Thatcher & Reagan were, as the death of John Lennon (and in my opinion, Morrison too, but you already know that) was. A hundred, or a thousand little acts of brutality or oppression, intolerance and greed, all came together to make sure that hope was dead, and if it wasn’t, it was trapped, shut away in a little wooden box.
I am not exactly a ‘Bobby fan’ these days… in that I don’t view him in the way I would a rock star. I am, if you will, an admirer or rather, respecter. That presidential campaign really must’ve been a sight to see! I truly do believe that the Kennedy of 1968 was a changed man from the petty vendetta man of his early career, or the attorney general.
Still, from a certain point of view, the guy did save us from nuclear war back in 1963… in response to this my friend said “oh, and that had nothing to do with saving his family, I suppose?” which to me seems a ridiculous argument. Maybe, I don’t know. When it comes to stopping nuclear war I find it hard to really question a man’s motives, especially if ‘I did it for my family’ is the motive.
Anyway, I think the RFK we remember in glowing terms, the one people are fanatical about, is the Campaign Trail Kennedy (God, I really want Mattel to bring out a Campaign Trail Barbie, complete with pant suit and rosette!) who was asking us to be tolerant, to be caring. That guy, who might’ve brought the Vietnam war to an earlier close, who might have brought racial harmony to America, who might have helped cure the disease of poverty. The guy who really listened to people and who really seemed to care.
That’s the guy I mourn, and I make no apologies for it. That he did not live to prove us wrong (or maybe even worse, lose the presidential campaign) doesn’t matter. I mourn him because I honestly believe that he wanted to work to make America, and the world, a better place. He’s the guy who got me to study American Studies, after all. Him and Jim Morrison, obviously. Two guys who did not live to see their potential fulfilled, two guys about whom all we can do is wish and dream and surmise…
I mourn, or rather I remember, Robert Kennedy because he seemed to me a good man on the cusp of becoming a great man. Someone who cared. I make no apologies for it, just as I will make no apologies for remembering other good people who did not get their chance to make gentle the life of this world. In these sour times, I also remember that this was a well-read, educated man who made no apologies for being so, who did not dumb down to people. Someone who gave the impression that he was in possession of an inquiring, questioning mind. Presidents used to be like that in the olden days.
I remember Robert Kennedy the man, the idea and the myth. I mourn the death of hope, and of the different freedoms that have been offered up to government and big business since his death. I mourn the loss of a questioning youth, a challenging youth. I mourn the death of liberal politics in both Britain and America, countries where we have returned to days when people in power made all the decisions – Superdelegates: Isn’t that what Chicago 1968 was about? Gordon Brown here just coming to power because they agreed it that way in a restaurant over 10 years ago?
Hell, when I sit and really think about the world now, and what it just might have been, I can’t imagine how any of us aren’t crying our eyes out.
Debate and dissent are the very heart of the American process. We have followed the wisdom of Greece: “All things are to be examined and brought into question. There is no limit set to thought.”
Freedom is not money, that I could enlarge mine by taking yours. Our liberty can grow only when the liberties of all our fellow men are secure; and he who would enslave others ends only by chaining himself, for chains have two ends, adn he who holds the chain is as securely bound as he whom it holds. And as President Kennedy said at the Berlin Wall in 1963, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.”
Our choice is not whether change will come, but whether we can guide that change in the service of our ideals and toward a social order shaped to the needs of all our people. In the long run, we can master change not through force or fear, but only through the free work of an understanding mind, through an openness to new knowledge adn fresh outlooks which can only strengthen the most fragile and the most powerful of human gifts: the gift of reason.
Together we can make this a nation where young people do not seek the false peace of drugs. Together, we can make this a nation where old people are not shunted off; where, regardless of the colour of his skin or the place of birth of his father, every citizen will have an equal chance at dignity and decency. Together, Americans are the most decent, generous, and compassionate people in the world.
Divided, they are collections of islands. Islands of blacks afraid of islands of whites. Islands of Northerners bitterly opposed to islands of Southerners. Islands of workers warring with islands of businessmen.
The suppression of individuality – the sense that one is listeneing – is even more pronounced in our politics. Television, newspapers, magazines, are a cascade of words, official statements, policies, explanations, and declarations. All flow from the height of government down to the passive citizen: Who can shout up against a waterfall? More important, the language of politics is too often insincerity, which we have perhaps too easily accepted but which to the young is particularly offensive. George Orwell wrote a generation ago: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”
All the phrases which have meant so much to Americans – peace and progress, justice and compassion, leadership and idealism – often sound not like stirring reminders of our nation, but call forth the cynical laughter or hostility of our young and many of our adults. Not because they do not believe them, but because they do not think our leaders mean them…
(all from Make Gentle The Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F Kennedy published by Harcourt Brace & Company 1998)
I find myself curiously dry-eyed, however. Perhaps it’s that long ago I chose not to care, but I don’t think that’s it. Perhaps I stopped believing myself able to do anything but comment unseen. Maybe, but just maybe, there could even be cause to hope.
Not even just because Gordon Brown has turned out to be such a stupid fucking moron, because we already knew that.
Maybe, just maybe Barack Obama might be up to the task. Not of stepping into Bobby’s myth-filled shoes, because that would be tilting at windmills. No, perhaps Obama’s oft-mentioned ‘CHANGE’ might be in the air. Maybe the people will finally say to the government that has taken so much and given back nothing that they should be FUCKING ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES and GET THE FUCK OUT OF OUR HOUSE.
No, that won’t happen. I’m too cynical to believe that Obama will be president but maybe, just maybe I have the hope that he will. The hope then to follow would be that he doesn’t let us down. The hope is that Obama represents the very best of Bobby without the shadows.
So kids, it is time for us all to stand up and shout. Time to bring everything into question and not just leave it to the fringes, or the satirists to tell the truth. I have no idea how we can do this, but do it we must.
It has already been a vicious primary season, but I would ask those Americans reading, of all political opinions, to demand a decent presidential campaign. DEMAND, don’t ASK! It’s your right, it’s your responsibility.
I shall end now with my most favourite of all political statements, which is not from RFK, but from the movie V For Vendetta:
People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.