It is Kennedy memorial time again, that yearly remembering of how the young vibrant 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, died in a motorcade in Dallas, and each time it comes around I am thrust back into the days of my growing up. College and Kennedy’s election, the Bay of Pigs and student protests, marches against the war, and the introduction of pot as an alternative to alcohol. We really thought we could change the world, and in many ways, we did.
This past year, Philadelphia seemed to be obsessed with all things 1968 – and that too awakened memories. Walking through the 1968 Exhibit at the Constitution Center, looking at images and artifacts of events I had actually experienced, reminded me of just how powerful those times were. And then, more recently, watching RFK, a revival of a one-man show about Robert Kennedy, another leader we had believed in but never got to see what he could accomplish. Unlike the Kennedys, most of us live on the fringes of history, we are not essential to the events that occur around us, but those events are crucial in shaping our lives and our eventual legacies.
For me, 1968 was the year the young men died – Kennedy, King, Michael (my own personal loss), and countless unnamed others who were each someone’s son, boyfriend, lover, father, friend, dying in a faraway land for a cause most of us no longer believed in. It was a time of chaos and confusion. A time of hope and horror. The death of men far too young to die, the riots of young people in Chicago while business went on as usual in the Convention Center. I wondered how many people I knew in that unruly rabble in Lincoln Park, wondered if I should have been there too, yet relieved ultimately that I wasn’t.
It was the spring of 1968 and I was working at Bobby Kennedy’s headquarters in New York City doing something of vital importance like stuffing envelopes or compiling lists or answering phones – rotary dial of course. Of all the possible candidates available, and there were many, we had decided to support the Senator from New York despite some misgivings about how he had come to that position. We were optimistic and determined. We were against the draft, against the war; for civil rights and for equality. We were young and idealistic and heady with the illusion of power that marching in the streets gave us.
That are some moments that we all remember, that we can tell you just what we were doing when we first heard about it. For today’s youth it is September 11, 2001 and the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. For my parents it was Pearl Harbor – my father was driving through the Holland Tunnel when he heard of it. For my generation it was a series of losses that started with the death of JFK, November 23, 1963, a day when I was also dealing with health issues of my own.
And then it happened again, and again. One evening at Bobby’s headquarters, a tall figure walked down the stairs, looked at us somberly. We stopped whatever we were doing and gathered around him. William vanden Heuvel, assistant to Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, stood there, wearing a shirt, I remember, but probably also a jacket and tie – we were a well-dressed cadre of volunteers in those days – and he told us that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot.
There we were, standing in the offices of the brother of the President who had been shot down just five years earlier. That first assassination of our lifetime was still raw for us. We stood, cried, disbanded, left.
The next day, I think it was, we gathered in Central Park – where we gathered many times since – war protests, John Lennon’s death, concerts, any time there was a need for New Yorkers to gather, that’s where we went.
I wore – why I remember this, I can’t say – a pink plaid straight skirt with a white patent leather belt and flats with a headband (and I never wear a headband) – perhaps we also felt a need to dress up in the presence of death. A lot of well-dressed white people gathered in Central Park that day to mourn the passing of a slain civil rights leader.
We drifted away from Bobby’s campaign after that. Too many candidates, too many issues. He didn’t have a chance. Maybe he wasn’t the best person, he had a history – with McCarthy, with New York. And then, as California seemed possible, we began to talk about going back to that basement office with the tables and envelopes and phones and the stalwarts who had never left.
That Tuesday night, we stayed up late to make sure he really had won. He had. It was late, so we headed for bed, the TV still on in the living room, and then . . . a sound we’d never thought to hear again. And then there was no point in going back.
The TV was once again our anchor, our connection with the dream once more deferred.
It had been a long time since I held out my hand to the TV screen to try and stop Jack Ruby from shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. A long time since I believed in a politician, in politics, in government, in the power of people to change the system.
Watching the one man show RFK (by Jack Holmes, Ginger Dayle directed. New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre Second Stage) was a sobering reminder of how much we lost that evening. The portrait of RFK it presents is a man driven by insecurities and family pride. Who rarely called his older brother, eight years between them, by his first name, only by his title, President Kennedy. A man called ruthless by his opponents who ultimately came to see that he had to stand up for what he believed in and not just to win votes.
Was this a true picture of RFK? I don’t know. It is a portrait of the kind of leader so many of us would like to see today. The kind of person we keep hoping to vote for. The play showed us a politician who was able to change his mind, who wasn’t locked in to a position that no longer made sense. It’s interesting to wonder whether in today’s gotcha politics Bobby Kennedy could have survived. One can only wish that it’s still possible for a leader to make a real difference, although cynicism makes us doubt it.