Today is June 6. Many people will remember the events of that day in 1944, and rightfully so … although for most of us that is a matter of memory now, brought to us through newsreels, films, interviews, and even video games.
I can recall reflecting on the anniversary of D-Day as a child, but it was already part of history (even if it was very recent history … closer to me then than Desert Shield and Storm are to me now). But it was 1968 when I realized in a way I had never understood before how history was unfolding before my eyes. Eugene McCarthy’s presidential candidacy … the Tet Offensive … LBJ’s decision not to run … the assassination of Martin Luther King … the Prague Spring … peace talks and table shapes in Paris … the new Nixon … the Chicago convention … the Soviets rolling into Prague … the presidential election … Apollo 8 … it’s all fresh in my memory, reinforced by personal experiences that brought me even closer to some of these events.
I had some cause to reflect on 1968 during my time in Europe these past two weeks, spent in Paris and Prague. As in 1968, there were riots in Paris; as I walked the streets of Prague, I remembered Alexander Dubček and the promise of democracy that was crushed … but only for a generation … by Soviet tanks in August (now you know why Boston Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr wears #68).
But yesterday and today I’m reflecting on another event that left a lasting impression on a certain ten-year-old boy: the assassination and death of Robert F. Kennedy.
You see, Robert F. Kennedy was my senator in 1968 as well as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president that year. Although I had followed at great distance the presidential election of 1964, I was very much engaged in tracking politics during 1968. My dream contest would have pitted Kennedy against New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.
I didn’t follow Bobby Kennedy because he was the brother of a late president. Nor did I then understand much about the road that brought him to 1968. What I saw was someone who was trying to understand what was going on and trying the deal with the challenges before him, and that was enough. I had heard much about how a torch had been passed to a new generation, but LBJ seemed part of a previous generation, as did French president Charles de Gaulle, who was dealing with his own troubles in 1968. Bobby Kennedy seemed to me to be part of the present and the future. And so I went to bed on the night of June 4, 1968, aware that the fate of Kennedy’s presidential bid rested on whether he would capture the California primary.
On the morning of June 5, 1968, both of my parents came into my bedroom to wake me up. This was terribly unusual. Both of them, dedicated Republicans, had somber looks on their faces. They knew of my interest in politics, and they had something to tell me. Bobby Kennedy had been shot, just monents after declaring victory in California. Right now he was fighting for his life in a hospital.
Reflecting on this moment some forty-five years later, I remain touched that my parents chose to break the news to me as they did. They knew of my interest in politics and my admiration for Kennedy (an admiration I don’t think they shared, at least not to the same degree).
June 5 proved a long day, with reports coming in about the senator’s struggle to live. Early on the morning of June 6, that struggle ceased as Kennedy passed away.
I remember well the events of the next several days, as Kennedy’s body was taken to New York, then rode the rails to Washington before being interred at Arlington a short distance from where his brother had been buried nearly five years before. Edward Kennedy’s eulogy (above) remains a moving tribute.
In years to come, I learned more and more about Kennedy, and not everything sat well with me. Such is usually the case with childhood heroes (see Mickey Mantle). And yet I never lost the feeling of inspiration that Kennedy had helped ignite within me, or the way in which he reflected on the deeper meanings of politics, society, and life. For that, I ask that you recall a eulogy that he gave, on the spot, just two months before he was shot:
Bobby, we hardly knew ye.