Some years ago, I was confronted by a man who didn't like my politics, my religious opinions, my cultural values ... didn't like anything about me it seems, having judged me solely on what he'd read in BW. He tracked me down at the bowling alley I've made no secret of frequenting, and initially, I thought maybe he'd come to beat the stuffing out of me, at best—and at worst ... well, the mind can conjure up some frightful possibilities, can't it? Especially a mind that came of age when a bullet in the head was a not-uncommon solution to whatever you didn't like.
After a few minutes of relatively civil conversation, this fellow found I wasn't the monster he'd come to expect. Yes, I was what I've always claimed to be. Yes, I represented everything he'd come to detest. But he seemed genuinely surprised I had such normal, undetestable qualities as a wife, a child, a job and a taste for Budweiser. I could sense his urge to smack me dissipate as we talked.
The oddest thing he asked before we went our separate ways was what I thought of the Kennedys. I assume he saw the Kennedys as emblematic of America's cultural divide, and he wanted to know if I considered them special. He wasn't specific about what he meant by special, and I wasn't specific when I answered no, they're nothing special. At the time, I told him the truth as I saw it.
I was wrong. It wasn't until the recent anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination that I remembered how I saw it 40 years ago, and I would feel negligent were I to let that anniversary slip away without trying to pass on what Bobby and his murder meant to me and so many around me.
I'd come home from school for the summer. It had been a strange year in Moscow, as elsewhere, mostly because of Vietnam. The longer that war went on, the more surreal the world became. I can't say if Vietnam was why I let my hair grow long, or if it was because of the era's fashion, or if it was just because. I just know, for a time there, it felt like the only power you had over anything was how long you let your hair grow.
Dad didn't like it, nor did Mom, but bless them—they didn't make a big to-do about it. I had a summer job, my grades were good, I loved them and they loved me. So even though Dad was a lunch-bucket Democrat who couldn't fathom what was happening to his beloved party, and even though Mom was a worrywart who couldn't fathom what was happening to her beloved son, they were both happy I was home for the summer.
I'll never know what effect the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., two months earlier, had on them, being much too self-involved at the time to ask. I'm not even sure what effect King's assassination had on me. It added to the general confusion, certainly, but I wasn't surprised. If a U.S. president could be shot dead, as had happened less than five years earlier in Dallas, then how unexpected could King's murder be?
Still, up in the academic oasis of Moscow, I was around people who were so devastated by King's death, it seemed they were giving up. That, and Vietnam. The scourge, the curse ... Vietnam. It was getting closer and closer every day. I could feel in my bones I would soon have to make a personal decision about Vietnam.
For the upcoming presidential election—the first one I could or would vote in—I'd already made a decision. I was a Gene McCarthy man (to the extent that I was a man at all). He was campaigning to get us out of Vietnam, and that alone would have been all I needed to know.
But he was a poet, too. My writing instructor came to class one night with one of McCarthy's poems in hand, marveling that even a part-time poet could be running for president. Her enthusiasm infected me. I can't quote that poem after 40 years, but I can quote the line McCarthy borrowed from T.S. Eliot to complement his own verse: "I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." I surely understand the sentiment better now than I did then, but even then, it was thrilling to think poetry and the direction America might take weren't incompatible. I could even argue that what happened in America from 1964 on was a desperation to return to our lives the sense of poetry and promise that had been ripped from us in Dallas.
Like others, I resented somewhat that Bobby joined the race after he saw what Sen. McCarthy had accomplished in the early primaries. But that resentment faded the more he spoke. While McCarthy wrote poetry, Bobby was poetry. Simply in the manner he presented himself—the energy, the eloquence, that beautiful grin—he (like his brother before him) reminded a struggling nation that such things as poetry, music, beauty, passion and compassion, dreams and intellect, all had as rightful a place in a nation's future as war and fear and brutality.
I went to bed that night confident Bobby would win California, would win the nomination, would win the presidency. How could the country not choose such a princely figure over the trolls that were his competition? I left Mom snoring in her recliner. Her habit was to fall asleep early, then wake late to watch Carson by herself. Only, when she awoke later, Carson had been preempted.
She came to get me before the sun came up, sitting on the bed and touching me awake. "Bill, someone killed Bobby Kennedy," and she stroked my shoulder. She might not have fully understood why this could be the worst possible news to me, but she definitely understood it would be the worst possible news. We sat at the kitchen table and listened to the radio together until I had to go to work.
You know the rest. Or you should. In August, the streets of Chicago turned to chaos, and in November, the vilest man that American politics had to offer was elected president.
Being special couldn't save the Kennedys from their share of corruption, cowardice and criminality, and many would prefer we judge their name on Chappaquiddick and theories about Marilyn Monroe.
But being special isn't the same as being saints, and nobody ever said it was. The truth remains, no other single clan in our nation of clans has inspired so much hope, so many dreams, or given so much to make America transcendent. That made the Kennedys special then, and their family tradition continues. As once again familiar, turbulent tides seem to converge on our country, let the Kennedys be a reminder of all that which can't be killed—that which is passed lovingly through hearts and history.