Sunday, October 13, 2013

We need a Bobby Kennedy.

               I had my radio playing as I slept. In the early hours of June 6, 1968 a news story woke me. After winning the California Democratic Primary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) was shot and killed in the Kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

My world collapsed into despair and anger.

In 1964, Bobby ran for and was elected to the Senate from New York.This caused concern inside the Johnson Administration as they feared he was preparing a Presidential bid. LBJ had lost the nomination to JFK in 1960 and did not relish the idea of a challenge from another Kennedy. Especially one as politically astute as Bobby.

During his time in the Senate Bobby advised LBJ against committing ground troops in Vietnam. Johnson did so anyway. That move eventually destroyed his Presidency and overshadowed his accomplishments.It also nearly destroyed America.

As Attorney General RFK was an early champion of the Civil Rights Movement. He desegregated his staff and pushed desegregation of the Federal Government. He chided Vice President Johnson for not doing the same. Their dislike and distrust of each other was legendary.Bobby aggressively pushed The Justice Department into the Jim Crow South working to ensure voting rights for African Americans living there. Kennedy's DOJ pushed desegrigation hard under existing law.

In the Senate he continued his commitment to Civil Rights. Bobby visited South Africa and condemned apartheid, shining world attention on the Afrikaners. Kennedy spoke there condemning the South African system to global acclaim.

He worked on a redevelopment of Bed-Sty. He visited the Mississippi Delta with his committee to gauge the progress of the war on poverty. Kennedy kept his finger on the progressive American pulse. In spite coming from privilege he viewed public service as a high calling. He believed it was a way to repay America for his opportunities.

Bobby was nearly a lone white voice in politics speaking forcefully for the "disaffected"and the "excluded".His support of social justice pushed the Democratic Party to engage on the Civil Rights over the anger from the Congressional bloc from The Old Confederacy.

Bobby was the spearhead for aggressively working to eliminate public segregation. He strived to improve educational opportunities and health care for Black Americans. He fervently supported the 1965 Civil Rights Act. He pushed for anti poverty social programs to help eventually level the playing field.

In 1967 Bobby came out in opposition to the Vietnam war. He did so as a member of the Kennedy Administration who, like his brother, did not support the deployment of ground troops there. Bobby advocated a more isolationist foreign policy that would make human rights a cornerstone. He believed domestic change was the priority.

Bobby was an early supporter of Caesar Chavez and the push to improve the lives of migrant farm workers. Kennedy had the courage of his convictions. He wanted equality, social justice and opportunity for all Americans.

RFK was perhaps the best political orator of the last half of the Twentieth Century. It would come to the fore in 1968.

As Lyndon Johnson prepared his reelection run Kennedy was conflicted. The challenge of a sitting President never ends well. He knew that. In January 1968, in response to speculation, he said he was not going to seek the 1968 nomination. Bobby was an astute, skilled politician and saw no upside at that time.

The anti war protests were raging across the country. The young were challenging the status quo. Cities had burned throughout the nation as racial unrest spilled over into rage. Kennedy continued his support of Civil Rights and opposition to the Vietnam war as a backlash to those ideas was sweeping America.

The power structure in The Old Confederacy was active in their resistance to the death rattle of Jim Crow. The blue collar worker was afraid they would lose their job to a black man to fill a quota. These men were also appalled at their children's rejection of their beliefs and values. The world was changing and these working stiffs were confused, angry and afraid.

The youth of America was in the process of trying to change the country in the ideas of racial equality. Many demanded women be treated as equals as the Women's Movement went mainstream.

The opposition to the war was wide spread as was the hatred of the Draft. The way it was set up if you had the ability to attend college you were deferred. If you knew how to work the system you could avoid the Draft indefinitely. If your parents were wealthy or politically connected conscription was not an issue. The cost of the war fell on those with limited opportunity. The war was correctly called a civil rights and racial issue. Blacks and Hispanics were over represented in the armed forces as were the poor of all colors.

In the 1968 the Tet Offensive in Vietnam exploded across the front pages of the nation's newspapers and evening news.

Now you need to know that for the previous four years the war came into everyone's living room. The coverage by the US TV Networks was courageous and amazing. We saw the horror of war as a backdrop to dinner. Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. The correspondents caught video of America at war and it pissed off the Pentagon to no ends as they lost control of the message.

We were lead down the primrose path by the Johnson Administration. Westmoreland, the commander of American Forces in Vietnam kept telling us we were winning.The body count was reported every night. We saw our troops in combat.There was a growing concern in middle America that we were locked in a Civil War with no way out. The US Armed Forces was ill prepared to fight a guerrilla war. Counter insurgency was in it's infantry. Once more we were fighting the last war. The light at the end of the tunnel was a freight train.

Tet happened. Our military was caught by surprise by a massive offensive on Vietnamese cities. We saw our troops pushed back, pinned down and in Khe Sanh under a siege that lasted two months.

The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies caught us flat footed.There was street to street fighting in Saigon. Thirty-six Provincial Capitols were attacked as were over a hundred towns. The battle to retake Hue lasted a month and we leveled the city to retake the ruins. The NVA and Viet Cong suffered massive casualties.

The American Command was in a near panic as they did not think the enemy had the ability to launch such a massive and well coordinated attack. In public Westmoreland was optimistic. In private he was shaken. General Westmoreland held an unbelievable conviction that this offensive was a distraction and the real target was Khe Sanh.

The Allied forces finally regained the lost ground. It was actually a victory but caused a sea change on perception of the war in the US. Robert McNamara, a leading architect of that tragedy resigned.

American causalities were also high. 1968 became the deadliest year of the war with over 16,000 killed.

RFK received a letter from Pete Hamill urging him to run. He told Bobby that the downtrodden kept photos of Jack on their wall. So, he had "an obligation to staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls."Kennedy decided to challenge LBJ.

Bobby knew he needed to get Senator Eugene McCarthy out of the race so as not to fracture the anti war vote.Bobby was advised to wait till after the NH Primary to talk Gene out of the race. Johnson narrowly won over McCarthy who at the time was an obscure Senator from Minnesota. Johnson knew then that he was in big trouble.

On March 16,1968, in the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office Building where JFK started his race to Dallas, Bobby announced his candidacy. Bobby said as he announced,"I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that the country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done and I feel I am obliged to do all I can."

I believe Johnson was horrified by that announcement. he harbored the suspicion McCarthy was a Kennedy stalking horse. The McCarthy supporters exploded in anger at Bobby accusing him of opportunism. The anti war vote was split now. My opinion was always Gene didn't have a prayer. Bobby would not have announced if he thought he couldn't win.

Johnson, always a skilled politician, saw the writing on the wall. He declined to stand for reelection. Stunned by that Kennedy and McCarthy had to reevaluate the race. This was no longer an insurgency against a sitting President. It would be a fight for an open nomination.It would get ugly.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with the backing of the Democratic Party Machine, announced. He was too late to enter the existing primaries but was confident he could leverage the nomination.

Bobby spoke to the young. He rightly recognized they were the future of America.He challenged those who held Draft deferments and supported the war to end their hypocrisy. Kennedy envisioned an America based more on social justice and equality than on a Cold War interventionist foreign policy.

He reached out to America's disaffected youth wanting to bridge the Generation Gap and reinvent America. he felt the need to continue and expand his brother's vision of The United States. A nation where everyone could fully participate and achieve their potential.

Then, like now, this did not sit well with thee business community and the wealthy. They did not want to pay the higher taxes to accomplish RFK's vision of social progress. At the Indiana University Medical School he was asked where the money was going to come from. In honesty not seen in politicians then and especially now, he replied,"From you." He took this open way of communicating with the public into the primary battle with an ascendant McCarthy.

At the University of Alabama he said those seeking high office had to address "all Americans, who we must be leading the difficult years ahead." I believe Bobby saw this election as a battle for America's future.

Bobby's campaign across the nation was inspiring to so many of us coming of age in a divided nation struggling with it's past and an uncertain future. He spoke eloquently of his desire to end poverty. Bobby visited not only large cities. When he did his motorcade was swarmed by those who saw He understood what they faced. I myself waited four hours at the old Neil House Hotel in Downtown Columbus Ohio for a glimpse in May of '68.

While others avoided the inner cities Bobby actively campaigned there. He was in touch with the unheard and ignored.

Then Martin was killed.

Kennedy heard of Dr. King's murder as he prepared to go to Indianapolis. He was scheduled to speak in Indy's ghetto. On arrival he was warned by IPD they couldn't guarantee his safety and recommended he cancel. Senator Kennedy refused and went to speak.

He came to the rally at 17th and Broadway in the heart of the ghetto. Most there were not yet aware of what happened in Memphis.

From the back of a flatbed truck he gave an impromptu speech that many consider one of the best ever given by an American politician.

He broke the news.There were wails of anger, grief and disbelief. Bobby was able to quiet the crowd. He reminded the audience he understood because he had lost his brother to senseless violence also wrought by a white man. He had never spoken of Jack's assassination before in public.. He warned against disillusion and despair. He lauded King's non violent approach to changing America. Bobby quoted Aeschylus, a classical Greek playwright.

Kennedy then said,"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 in not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country whether they be white or they be black."

Cities across America burned that night. Indianapolis did not.

Bobby won Indiana and Nebraska. He lost Oregon to McCarthy. It came down to California. Bobby as astute as he was felt if he took The Golden State he'd kneecap McCarthy's campaign and face Humphrey one on one in Chicago. He won.

Bobby died that night. The hopes of millions died with him in that hotel kitchen.

The Chicago Convention descended into nationally televised violence. The Chicago police beat press and protesters into the ground. Those scenes handed the Presidency to Nixon.

The issues RFK fought for, championed with eloquence and passion are still with us.

Today we see the Right trying to undo everything Bobby fought for, stood for and died for. Bobby was a magician on the stump. His rhetoric soared speaking to our better angels. He was also a knuckle brawler. He knew how to win a political fight. He knew how to message. He saw America as an actual shining city on the hill. It wasn't only for the white and rich like Reagan's shining city.

Kennedy knew we were better than we seemed. He believed. He wasn't the product of focus groups or packaging. He grew up wealthy. He knew he had advantages denied others. He felt compelled to serve the nation. Not for gain, but for helping America reach it's potential. To lead us into a new era of equality and prosperity.

Today would any politician quote an ancient Greek playwright? Could any even name one? Could any calm a crowd so as not to strike in anger and desperation? His honesty and compassion was what made him so special. Even more so than Jack.

Bobby may have been our last, best hope.

In '68 we got Nixon. Two years later Cambodia and Kent State. Nam raged on for another five years. So many names on that Wall in D.C. shouldn't be inscribed there.

We got Nixon, Saint Ronnie, Bush and the Tea Party. Bobby would be appalled we let this happen. And pissed.

There seems to be no one with a vision of a better America. The only vision out there is one of hate and stripping this nation of the strides we've made.

God can't help us now. We must refight those battles. We have to fight for the heart and soul of the America that should be, not the one we see being enacted.

We are better than that. Now we only need to prove it.

I still miss Bobby.

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