Fifty years ago this week — on a very late Tuesday June 4th evening — I was coloring my hair in the New Jersey apartment I shared with my mother. Recoloring I should say. And it wasn’t going well.
With the radio on in the background, into the early morning hours of June 5, I continued to make a mess of my hair. And, as I waited for the bleach or the dye — I can’t recall which direction I was going — to do its thing, I heard the news that Robert F Kennedy had won the California primary, pushing out my candidate “Clean Gene” McCarthy by just a few percentage points (46% to Gene’s 42%, I’ve learned).
I wasn’t happy.
I’d been irritated with RFK ever since he’d entered the primary campaign shortly after Eugene McCarthy showed so well in New Hampshire. At the time it seemed Bobby had let Gene take all the risk before getting into the primary race himself. (See my post from March 14 on why I supported Eugene McCarthy.) I sided with those who saw Bobby Kennedy as an opportunist.
I pushed my political disappointment out of my mind. My plan was to find a drug store early the next morning and buy something that would “fix” my hair in time for me to get to work, a summer job at Overbrook, the nearby psychiatric hospital. And so I washed the chemicals from my hair, wrapped my head in a towel, and went to turn off the radio.
It was then that I heard Bobby had been shot. In the head.
It had been only two months since Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed by an assassin’s bullet. And the memories of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, not yet five years before, had not dimmed. (Here’s April’s 50-Years-Ago post, including MLK’s assassination. And, I did a 50-years-ago post in 2013 on JFK’ death.)
“Not again,” I remember thinking. Then, soon hearing he was alive, on his way to a hospital, I went to sleep.
I awoke the next morning not thinking much more about Bobby than that he’d survived the night and that was a good sign. I remember my trip to a drug store, buying something from the hair products aisle, and then being at work that afternoon and evening, thinking there was nothing to be concerned with. I’d successfully put RFK out of my mind. He’d made it to the hospital alive; that’s much more than either JFK or MLK had. Denial is a much underrated defense mechanism, Maureen Reagan once famously said.
It would not be until Thursday before I learned he had died. And sadness was not my primary emotion. Fear was. There were too many dead heroes in my life. I felt scared for Eugene McCarthy and scared for the others I thought would come.
I’ve changed my mind about RFK in the years since.
I no longer use the word “opportunist” when I think of him. Instead, I see him as a careful and a savvy politician. And I don’t mean that pejoratively. Learning that McCarthy had been bent on getting Kennedy to run helped.
My political views have also softened over these past five decades.
I try not to see candidates as black or white, good or evil, competent or not. I see them all as imperfect human beings trying to do the best they can. Some are motivated by greed, some by a more generalized self interest; some seek fame, some want to leave a legacy. But all want to be successful at what they do. I see politics as a game of compromise, with few if any absolutes. Finding flaws in our politicians is not, for me, an automatic death knell for them.
I still believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, though I’ll admit to a few cracks in the solidity of that belief. Still, this quote from a speech Robert Kennedy gave in South Africa in 1966, resonates:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total, all of these acts will be written in the history of this generation.”
Generally, I also try to stay away from the “If onlys” and the “What ifs;” they sap my energy to no good effect.
But it is oh so very tempting to believe that had Bobby Kennedy won the Democratic primary he would have gone on to defeat Nixon. (I actually can’t say that about Eugene McCarthy.) So very much would have been different. No Watergate …
But memories are slippery things.
For example, I have a distinct memory of listening to the funeral for RFK that Saturday, June 8 on my car radio as I drove south on the Garden State Parkway to the shore. I remember the eulogy that Teddy Kennedy (later Senator Ted Kennedy) gave, specifically the last paragraph:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
I remember that clearly.
The problem is, Saturday, June 8 is the day I graduated from The King’s College in Westchester County, New York, 75 miles north. I have my graduation program to prove it and a few photos. How do I reconcile that?
I can’t recall where my mother was the night I was coloring (or bleaching; ruining for a time, anyway) my hair. Was she away? And if so, where? Was she home and asleep? Our apartment wasn’t that big! And it was well past midnight. I could ask her.
And how is it I had a summer job before I’d graduated? Was it the interview I was going for, instead? And, whatever did my hair look like when I went? Again, memories fade. And, sometimes, I am grateful that they do.
While I believe that it was a tragedy for the country, not just his family and friends, my brain refuses to lock onto the tragedy of the death of Robert Kennedy. Instead, it keeps me whirling around in the mundane, the insignificant, the irrelevant. Was I bleaching or dying my hair? Was I driving south to the beach or north to the college? Why was I alone in the car? I never went to the shore alone.
Perhaps it’s protecting me. The idea that three of our more outspoken advocates for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the different — JFK, MLK, and now RFK, we were big into initials in the 60s — were gunned down within five years of each other … this cannot possibly be more than coincidental. Can it?
Sally Edelstein’s blog, Envisioning the American Dream, has a post this week on Remembering Bobby Kennedy. I hope you’ll check it out. As usual, she’s got a wealth of great vintage photos and images from the era.
How about you? Where were you the night Bobby was shot?