[Robert Kennedy’s assassination completed a hat track of evil begun four years earlier with the killing of his brother, followed by the slaying of Martin Luther King and, two months later, of RFK. While the other deaths may have been more tragic to more people, in one respect RFK’s was the most profound, for it appeared to shut the door on hope. What had been with his brother a grim anomaly had turned into a grisly habit. I was 30 when this piece was written for the DC Gazette two days after Kennedy was shot. He had died the day after he was shot.]
JUNE 7, 1968 – Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of his associates is said to have told another: “The time will come when we shall laugh again; but we shall never be young again.” The comment, I suppose, was about those closest to the dead president, but it also contained a truth for the country. As I sat before a television set the last few days, attempting to sort the emotions marching through my mind, the thought that kept coming back was how weary, how old, we had all become. The inertia of age had settled upon the nation in the years following John Kennedy’s death it seemed, and now we were stoically acting out one more scene in an unrelieved tragedy.There were attempts to respond to the slaying of Robert Kennedy with affirmations of a will to change the old ways, but they appeared hollow. The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed; it had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. Now it watched Robert Kennedy die and even the most effervescent and optimistic among us could not summon a viable vision of a new order to lessen our brooding.
The President tried to help. He called for stricter gun laws and ordered increased protection for presidential candidates. These were worthy proposals, but they also seemed tediously mechanical. They did not meet the basic question, any more than did the search for a broad conspiracy following the death of John Kennedy. What if the Kennedys and Dr. King had each died in a plane crash? We would have demanded improved airline safety, no doubt, and would have found solace in the fact that the incidence of air deaths dropped the following year.
Yet in doing so, we would have deluded ourselves, because the central point of the tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.
Their deaths leave us shaken, fearful and alone because we had been so willing to share their vitality only vicariously. We permitted them to affirm for us rather than with us. Their stature was increased by our common weakness as much as by their individual strength. They were exceptions, when they should have been the best among many.
This is what we have to live with. It is not comforting to think that a democracy of 200 million persons does not freely spawn leaders who make substantial contributions to the national vigor. We have developed a political system that drains our politicians rather than invigorating them.
The order is one of unmitigated mediocrity to which the crowd responds with a ritualistic emotion drummed up by professionals who care only about the response and not about creating something worth responding to.
In the excruciating hours following the shooting of Robert Kennedy a soft-drink commercial interrupted the coverage of the event and on the screen came images of young men and women romping across the sand of a beach with hair waving, teeth glistening, and cans of soda held high. There was an ersatz gaiety to the scene. So strained was the laughter that one could not help sense an absence of joy.
And then, as suddenly as the 60-second artifice had come, it was gone and we were back with Kennedy again. And in the film clips of the campaigning there was hair waving and people moving with enthusiasm and glistening teeth. But it was real. And there were the pictures of the campaign ballrooms of Kennedy and McCarthy after the shooting and the hair hung limp on young foreheads, the lips pursed tight over the teeth and there were tears. And that was real too. And I thought of the commercial and said to myself, sell your damn soda but leave us at least real laughter and real tears. .
Robert Kennedy was no artifice. No one had packaged him. His political career might have been smoother if they had. He stood before us as a man, with his faults and virtues on view. I was among those who were quick to criticize him. I make no apologies for that other than to say that I, like many, overestimated his capacity for cynicism and underestimated his capacity for compassion. But that is no matter. . . For unlike many politicians, Kennedy did not seek mindless adulation. He asked to be listened to, challenged, questioned and tested. And he, in turn, expected to listen, challenge and test.
This is what imbued him with life. He was the Irishman in the proverb: “never at peace except when he’s fighting.” To many Americans, political beliefs are as undebatable as religious ones. But the core of democratic politics is argument and debate. Without them politics becomes a dark battle between unthinking forces in which reason always loses. Kennedy appreciated this, and threw himself into the argument with intensive verve. That made, him a man worth fighting and a man worth loving.
For Kennedy, and for this generation, the biggest debate, the greatest challenge came this year. In very different ways, only two public men directly confronted it: Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Among the beliefs they shared was that it was possible for America to become young again. But, as Senator Kennedy suggested, this would not come about by pursuing a phony politics of joy, romping over sand on cue, but through a politics of reality in which we would find both joy and sadness, but more importantly, the strength that comes from facing true tests of our existence. Now Senator McCarthy is alone among the presidential candidates willing to make the try.
The political realities suggest that we will be left this fall with a choice that borders on the banal. The challenges, the problems, the questions, will be mitigated, rationalized, justified and not met. And we shall be tempted to sit, like old men on a park bench, until some new surrogate voice comes forth to speak for us. Then we shall rise slowly, cheer loudly, and sit down again.
Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively – without waiting for someone else to do it for us – are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world.
Then, perhaps, we can become young again.