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In the early morning after the 1968 California Democratic primary I was aboard a bus on my way to work. Dave Glick, a co-worker with whom I’d been staying temporarily, was next to me in a side seat up front. “Wonder who won the primary,” he said absently. I nudged him to look down the length of the coach. People sat rigidly in their seats and stared forward grimly or vacantly. These drawn and strained faces weren’t the usual look of the morning commute. And then we noticed the tears when an elderly black woman in the first row turned and rested her head against the window. Her newspaper fell to the floor and we saw the headline and the photo of Kennedy’s eyes rolled back into their sockets. “Jesus!” Dave gasped, “Jesus Fucking Christ!” He uttered it in a gurgling burst, an eruptive coda to the accumulations of the ’60s, and I suspect we both knew his words had announced the end of our youth.
Indeed, what strikes me most is how incredibly young we were then; not merely in our lack of years, but in the temerity we hurled against Lyndon Johnson’s juggernaut. What strikes me equally is how old we had become by the end of that summer of 1968. There’s awe in that recollection, seen now from middle-aged caution about hubris, and a solemn shudder at how we daily witnessed and monitored our stark transformation. The 24-hour news cycle had its origins in that spring and summer of 1968. And it’s perhaps appropriate that Robert Kennedy should have hung on for 17 hours, with the updates and bulletins marking and punctuating what seemed to us to be the final ebbing away of proceduralist attempts to effect peace and justice.
I disliked the man at first –– and quite intensely –– which grew to a measured respect over the last 18 months of his life, and a reluctant admission that he was all we had remaining to us of that atavistic concept of the savior-politician. He, too, took on the role reluctantly, and there was something about that that was even endearing, if you will. It appeared that we were successful in moving him to the left, and in gratitude many of our apprehensions about him dissipated. His obvious deficiencies — the lurking patina of opportunism and sleaziness, the curtness and evasiveness, the cold warrior enthusiasms, the Catholicist intrusiveness, the anti-labor crusading –– we couldn’t altogether dismiss, but as his campaign progressed I had to give him his due: He had guts, and however long it had taken him to revise his positions, once made there was the sense that he was fully committed. For the emboldened but scared kids we were, venturing the streets in cold sweat and high anger, it was enough to sway us.
I was a few days shy of turning 25, the son of a career CIA officer, and working as an Office of Economic Opportunity community organizer in the Fillmore district of San Francisco after dropping out of grad school, fast learning about power and how it worked and wearing my crusty knowledgeability like a badge. By midsummer I had become a noncooperator with the Selective Service System, prepared to refuse induction and go to prison. The array of other options for me had become unconscionable: Canada, the National Guard, my father’s offer of his influence to get me into Army Intelligence, the varieties of the above- and underground theatrical crudities and stupidity of “revolutionary” posturing, gun-toting or otherwise. I remained among those who believed in the possibility of working within the system, however much that approach seemed to be futile, though my naivete did not preclude thinking it should be attempted by driving that system to the wall with every last bit of moral and tactical means the law allowed, followed by civil disobedience. The Saul Alinsky–trained organizer in me was perfecting the ground rules for playing against a stacked deck.
It’s become fashionable to recast Robert Kennedy in the neoliberal/neoconservative mold, but by definition such scholarship-at-a-distance is moot. Extrapolating his suspect statements and views to current national policy misses the point of those times. To those of us working in the streets then, Johnson’s Great Society was a failure not because it was an excessive appendage to the New Deal, but because it cut back that approach to one of distributed “services,” to the exclusion of economic power. Kennedy’s criticism of the consequent joblessness and welfare dependency, crime and feeble bureaucratic solutions has been misconstrued as an intrinsically conservative approach, when in fact it could be argued that it was an appeal to retain and reinforce Roosevelt’s basic agenda. For those of us staffing the federal antipoverty programs, at least, administering to our chagrin Johnson’s brand of inner-city colonialism, we had to believe that was what Kennedy had in mind.
He finally won me over in a couple of ways. One, his insistent, almost strident appeal for tax breaks for industries to relocate to poor neighborhoods. I have to doubt that he was talking about the sort of “enterprise zone” scraps we see thrown out to the poor today; I daresay he had in mind real jobs at real money, and keeping intact the post–WWII growth and influence of black commercial enterprises and trade unionism in those communities. The other, closer to the bone, was my realization that there was no political payoff for him in reiterating the dangerous precedent that Martin Luther King had voiced about the disproportionate numbers of conscripted poor who were dying fighting the peasantry of Vietnam. Overall, I certainly hesitate to call Kennedy a social democrat; he was born to the manor, and his internationalism was still too often rife with cheap anticommunist rhetoric. What he embodied was the willingness to chance an economic and political synthesis that seemed to us to be imaginative and, at root, radical enough to earn our pragmatic assent.
After he was gone, after Chicago and the simultaneous battering of our Czech student counterparts in Alexander Dubcek’s “Prague Spring,” we had our first adult scars, and new ridges of fears. The self-styled “vanguard” on the left, which had wavered on its appraisal of Kennedy, in its inimitable way now linked fascism and Hubert Humphrey indissolubly. It had been an act of faith on my part that my risking ten years in prison would help stop the war, and in that spirit I took at face value Humphrey’s hints that once out of Johnson’s shadow he would end it and voted for him. All my instincts led me to think he would summon forth his old Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party populist roots and the impetus for his groundbreaking civil rights and fair employment efforts. But by then, I suppose, I was certainly wiser than that.
The long trail of grief for Robert Kennedy is, of course, grief for ourselves. He listened to us, and he acted, ferrying our measured wrath and the nation’s bewilderment in hopes it would not be too late. I remember the cynicism I harbored in late-1968, and the glib yippie-prankster irony my activism subsequently became. But I recall something else in that transformation of trust into defeat. A radio interviewer asked me who I preferred in the upcoming Nixon – Humphrey election. “Alexander Dubcek,” I answered, and realized that anything we might express which was that unrealistic and that sensible would ensure that one day we would be back.
John Hutchison publishes the San Francisco Flier.