Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: The Last Campaign

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.

Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” is one of at least two songs whose lyrics were altered in-studio due to the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy [D, NY] on June 5, 1968 at 3:16 am Eastern time. As the title suggests, the song was written [by Richard Holler] as a result of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a poetic triumvirate tying Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and King together as men who, “freed a lot of people, but it seems the good they die young…” As Dion was laying down vocals, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination led Holler to add the final paragraph [above] to the song. The other song similarly adjusted was the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy with the Devil”. Keith Richards’ and Mick Jagger’s lyric was originally, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed John Kennedy?’, when after all, it was you and me”. As they were laying down the track, RFK was killed, leading Richards to slightly alter the line to have Jagger sing, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’, when after all…”

If I was truly conceived exactly nine months prior to my actual birth, then I was conceived the night that Robert Kennedy was murdered. Other than that – and my nephew’s being born exactly 40 years after the event – I have never thought much about Bobby Kennedy’s 82-day campaign for the Presidency in 1968. I knew the basic facts about the assassination in California, and had seen an extended rebroadcast of the event as it aired in the middle of the night on the east coast on June 5, 1968 – including Lyndon Johnson’s simply surreal address of mourning to the Nation. After listening to LBJ, anyone dropping in from Mars would have been clueless as to the visceral hatred both men shared for one another. That LBJ didn’t win an Oscar for that performance was criminal.

Until reading Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign, however, the actual campaign that preceded the assassination never captured my interest. I had generally believed that RFK – in 1968 at least – had been an opportunist. That he ran only after Sen. Eugene McCarthy [D, Minn] showed how vulnerable LBJ was by capturing 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and that Kennedy probably would not have been able to wrest the nomination away from Vice President Hubert Humphrey had he not been killed.

While Clarke often slips beyond the impartial into that world of Kennedy-worship that often makes books about them unreadable, his work does make a very strong argument that Robert Kennedy’s run for the Presidency in 1968 was nothing less than a political revolution that held the promise of a universally new way of politics. Clarke’s portrayal of the campaign, of RFK’s own inner-psyche and transformation at the hands of those who nearly tore him to pieces in trying to touch him, really does lead me to question my previous assumptions of the viability of Kennedy’s candidacy.

Those in the love-Kennedy camp often rhapsodize about ‘what might have been’ had President Kennedy lived; had Bobby Kennedy lived, etc. It is romantic and dramatic to draw up ‘might have beens’ and ‘what ifs’ when writing about either Kennedy. Bobby, though in particular, lends himself to this phenomenon because we know how it ends. We know what President Richard Nixon is going to do – not just in Vietnam and Laos but at home – and we know that what followed were some of the darkest political days in our nation’s history. Because we know all of this, it is tempting to think that – had Bobby lived – it all would have been different.

It is very, very hard to stop yourself from doing that kind of dreaming when reading Clarke’s work. For one thing – Clarke never shuts up about it, constantly hammering home his conviction that RFK would have been the greatest president since Lincoln. If you begin this work, though, aware of this tendency, and keep focused on the facts and stories alone, Clarke’s book is truly fascinating.

Because Bobby Kennedy’s campaign was fascinating. Clarke interviewed extensively all of the surviving members of the [very large] press pool that followed Kennedy from Day 1 to Day 82 of his campaign. These recollections are often being told here for the first time by men and women who – as journalists – fell in love with Kennedy and later felt guilty about losing their impartiality. That – combined with the horrific end of the campaign – led many to remain silent for nearly 40 years about what went on behind the scenes of that campaign.

For Clarke, however, they open up and tell an amazing story. For one thing [and this a major theme of the book], there was the almost universal belief among all of the media that Bobby Kennedy was going to be shot. From the first night of the campaign, when a bunch of reporters having drinks after hours took up a pool to see who could guess the exact date on which Kennedy would be shot [and this was in March; even before King had been killed] there was an inevitability among the press that this man was going to die before he could possibly succeed his brother. That he would die at the hand of an assassin and that it would happen while he was campaigning.

Indeed, that sense of inevitability was felt by many Kennedy aides. The candidate himself thought a great deal about it, according to some of the sources for Clarke’s book. These sources – mostly journalists who Kennedy often sought out after-hours to pour out his soul off the record – say Kennedy once said, “There are guns between me and the White House.” When asked what that meant, Kennedy reportedly smiled and said, “These people [the voters] say I’m a hero; well, heroes get shot.” On many occasions during the campaign, a car would backfire, or someone would set off firecrackers, and Kennedy would jolt upright, cover his head with his hands, or otherwise recoil as if it was Dallas 1963 all over again.

In addition to having that sense of inevitability about him, Clarke’s Bobby Kennedy is a man who – by March 1968 – was eager to leave his brother behind. “I’m interested in what can help this country in 1969,” Kennedy said, “not what we did in 1963.” Indeed, Bobby Kennedy by 1968 was far more ‘in-touch’ with the downtrodden, minorities, poor, and disenfranchised than his brother ever was [or would have been had he lived]. Bobby’s sense of empathy and his deep compassion were not characteristics, in fact, that his brother would have even recognized in his Attorney General. Indeed, the Bobby Kennedy of 1968 would have been unrecognizable to John Kennedy – both physically, with his long hair, and philosophically with his deep and passionate concern for African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and poor whites.

And these constituencies loved Bobby Kennedy. One of the great senses of tragedy around Kennedy’s 1968 assassination was the feeling held by many minorities that RFK had been their last best hope. With his death, no politician for the next 25 years would ever hold their esteem the way Bobby Kennedy had. And Kennedy loved these people. Despite his abhorrence of being so much as touched let alone having his shoes, cuff links, ties and other apparel torn violently from his body by adoring mobs, Kennedy insisted on allowing it to happen. Whenever his [private] security detail would object or try to keep crowds away, Kennedy would reprimand them on the spot and insist that he be allowed to freely greet and mingle. In fact, one of the many ironies of RFK’s actual assassination is that almost to a person those who believed he would be killed thought it would happen during these meet-and-greets. No known attempt on his life, however, was ever made during these literally hundreds of gatherings.

His end would come in a hotel kitchen instead. Here, too, Clarke points to another irony: Kennedy always insisted on leaving a speaking engagement by walking through the crowd and out the back to the exit. On the few occasions during the campaign that aides led him through a back way – such as the kitchen entrance of a hotel – he would furiously chastise them, “Never do that again!” It is possible that – after 82 days of tireless and endless campaigning – by June 5th Robert Kennedy was just too tired to go through the crowd one more time. That is the only reason anyone associated with the campaign can explain - 40 years later - why Bobby Kennedy allowed himself to be led through the kitchen where Sirhan Sirhan was waiting to kill him. In fact, some of Kennedy’s security detail that night had started to clear a path in front of the speakers podium, so that he could exit through the crowd, only to have to double back quickly [and, ultimately, futilely] when they realized their candidate had instead ducked back to the hotel kitchen.

For me personally, another of the great revelations in this book is the fact that Robert Kennedy knew he’d been shot. Because he’d been hit in the head, I had always assumed he lost consciousness instantly. He did not. Because there were so many people in the room at the time – one journalist estimated that there were 80 human beings within a 20-foot radius of the candidate with all of their attention focused on him when Sirhan pulled the trigger, Kennedy’s assassination was the most-witnessed political killing ever. While the Zapruder film captures in vivid and gory detail the assassination of John Kennedy, that film came to light only five years after the event. Until that time, very few had witnessed the actual shots and grim results.

Not so with Bobby Kennedy. The proximity between Kennedy and Sirhan was less than a few feet. Five others were wounded. As Kennedy had been led back through the kitchen, he clasped hands with cooks, dishwashers and other well-wishers. As he was leaning across one of the kitchen worktables to shake hands with yet another member of the kitchen staff, Sirhan reached out from the crowd, pointed a revolver at Kennedy’s head and fired. Sirhan used a .22-caliber pistol, not an ‘ideal’ weapon for an assassin. Later, the surgeon who operated on Bobby Kennedy would say that if the fatal bullet had hit Bobby Kennedy just a centimeter further back on his head than it did, Kennedy would have survived and eventually recovered with no brain damage.

Clarke recounts word-for-word the actual moment of the assassination as recorded live by Mutual Radio Network reporter Andrew West. West happened to be lucky enough to get Kennedy’s attention just as he entered the kitchen. The candidate agreed to talk with him, while he greeted the kitchen staff. On the tape, West asks, “Senator, how are you going to counter Mr. Humphrey and his backgrounding [sic] you as far as the delegate votes go?” Kennedy – still shaking hands – responds, “It just goes back to the struggle for it….” The gunshots. At that point, West frantically screams, “Senator Kennedy has been shot – Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen. Is it possible? He has. Not only Senator Kennedy – Oh my God – Senator Kennedy and another man – a Kennedy campaign manager – and possibly shot in the head. I am right here and [Kennedy aide] Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently has fired the shot….HE STILL HAS THE GUN!! The gun is pointed at me this very moment. I hope they can get the gun out of his hand. Be very careful. GET THE GUN! GET THE GUN! Stay away from the gun. Stay away from the gun. His hand is frozen….get his thumb, get his thumb take a hold of his thumb [here West momentarily forgets he is on the air] fucking BREAK it if you have to. Get away from the barrel. Look out for the gun. OK – all right. That’s it, Rafer, get it. Get the gun, Rafer. Ok, no hold on to the gun. Ladies and gentlemen they have the gun away from the man. I can’t see the man. I can’t see who it is. Senator Kennedy right now is on the ground. He has been shot. This is a – this is – wait a minute. Hold him! We don’t’ want another [Lee Harvey] Oswald, Rafer! Hold him. Keep people away from him. This is a – make room, make room, make room, make room. The Senator is on the ground. He’s bleeding profusely…apparently the Senator has been shot from the frontal area, we don’t see exactly where the Senator has been shot.”

At this point, Kennedy was still conscious. His eyes would focus and then go blank and then refocus again. A busboy kneeled at his side with a towel, uncertain where to put it as there was so much blood he couldn’t be sure where Kennedy had been hit. Kennedy looked up at the busboy and said, “Is everybody else all right? Is [aide] Paul [Schrade] okay? Is everybody all right?” As Kennedy’s wife, Ethel – who had been held up at the podium by well-wishers and only entered the kitchen after hearing the shots – reached him, he said to her, “My head!” Another witness said he then said, “Jack, Jack…” and lost consciousness. He regained it, however, when the ambulance attendants were finally able to reach him through the throng. “Don’t!” Kennedy screamed, “Don’t lift me. No, no, no, no!”

As Clarke says, perhaps the most surprising thing about Kennedy’s assassination is that almost literally no one was shocked, not even the victim. Journalist Hays Gorey recounts, “Gazing up from the floor, Robert Kennedy, still lucid, wore a haunting expression that no one who knew him will ever forget. He was fully aware of what had happened.” Another reporter, Peter Hamill – speaking for the first time in 40 years about the event – told Clarke that Kennedy had “a sort of sweet kind of acceptance” on his face as he lay on the floor. Hamill looked in Kennedy’s eyes and “instead of asking ‘What happened?’ they seemed to be saying, ‘So this is it.’”

The depth of the grief expressed by the underprivileged of all colors at Kennedy’s death is telling. Clarke’s account is well-done and thought-provoking. Of course, the answer will never be known – would Kennedy have won? Would he have even been a good president? What Clarke’s work does answer, however, is the question, ‘Why did this man want to be president?’ Whatever ambitions he may have had immediately after his brother’s death, by 1968 he was running for president because he’d found himself. He had found ‘his people’ and he was going to show them that in this country they could have faith in the government because he was going to make sure they were never forgotten.

It is tempting to chalk this up to rhetoric and in-the-heat-of-campaign bullshit. The fact that so many in the press fell in love with Bobby Kennedy during those 82 days, and that they fell in love with him because of what he was saying and doing, however, does tend to give credence to the idea that he really believed what he was saying. That these really were ‘his people’ and that he intended to do things his brother would never have dreamed of doing. We’ll never know, of course, but Clarke’s book brings those 82 days to life and is well worth the read for it.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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