Letter from the Editor: A Greater Need

Remembering a June morning 50 years ago.

When I was in eighth grade, my civics teacher assigned the class a daunting project: Each student was to document the 1968 presidential election, whether a report, a lengthy talk in front of the class or something else.

I chose to create a scrapbook. For two months, I faithfully saved newspaper clippings about the three Oval Office hopefuls—Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and, for a time, George Wallace. My parents drove me to the local headquarters of each candidate to pick up fliers, buttons and bumper stickers. I pasted everything into the square scrapbook I had bought at Woolworth’s, and wrote freehand descriptions in my cursive scrawl. Everything was arranged chronologically, and I will always remember what I wrote on the page that dealt with the day before the election: “One more day…but tomorrow we’ll know!’’

It was a valuable exercise in learning. I got an A+, the highest grade in the class, and the teacher bragged about my project in her commentary on the first page. “You should keep this always,’’ she concluded.

And I have. I occasionally dig out my scrapbook, and I’m struck by what’s not in it—clippings reflecting a campaign between Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Of course historians still debate whether RFK would have been the Democratic nominee had he lived. Bobby had his enemies, and many people thought he had undercut the anti-war candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. I don’t remember much about the political intrigue. What I do remember is where I was when I heard that RFK had been shot. On summer vacation, I turned on the TV the morning of June 5, 1968, and yelled for my parents to hurry into the living room. And over the next few days we would watch as the country laid another Kennedy to rest.

The memories of the scrapbook, RFK and that year in general were brought back recently as I watched the Netflix series Bobby Kennedy for President. It was a fascinating look at his appeal, his humor and his decency. What struck me most was the clip of Kennedy addressing a mainly African-American crowd in Indianapolis on the evening of April 4.

He was campaigning for president and had stepped onto the rear of a flatbed truck to give a speech. Because of what had happened a few hours before, his aides had advised him not to—it would be too dangerous. But Kennedy went ahead anyway. You could hear him ask an official softly: “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” Then he turned to the crowd and shocked them with the news that a few hours before, King had been shot to death in Memphis. As the Washington Post recently noted: “What unfolded during the next six minutes, according to historians and Kennedy biographers, is one of the most compelling and overlooked speeches in U.S. political history — the brother of an assassinated president announcing another devastating assassination two months before he’d be killed, too.”

RFK never looked at the notes he held in his hand. And about halfway through the speech came this:

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’

“What we need in the United States is not division,’’ Kennedy continued. “What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

In one of those bizarre reflections on age and time that I am prone to, I realized as I wrote this column that I’m now two decades older than Kennedy was when he died at age 42. Indeed, 50 years has gone by in a flash. So much has changed.

Perhaps, though, what we need in the United States really hasn't changed at all.


Categories: Column