The Post – A Couple Last Thoughts: That Last Campaign…and Now

I picked up the book, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy And 82 Days That Inspired America. I had to revisit that place, and learn more about what it was that so inspired me. Obviously, I was not alone in feeling that if I come back to those people along the tracks of his funeral train:

One of the pictures in the book is of a group of people in an inner city neighborhood, gathered together next to the tracks, some holding an American flag. The caption notes:

“No one had imagined that on a steamy Saturday afternoon two million people would spontaneously head for 226 miles of tracks: wading through marshes, hiking across meadows, filling tenement balconies, clambering onto factory roofs, standing in junkyards and cemeteries, looking down from bridges, viaducts, bluffs, and waving hand-lettered GOODBYE BOBBY signs.”

The question at the end of the jacket flap copy, sums it up best:

“Four days after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, two million grieving Americans — weeping, waving flags, saluting, and kneeling in prayer — lined the tracks to watch his funeral train carry his body from New York to Washington. One of the reporters on this train, Sylvia Wright of Life magazine, saw a bridal party standing in the tall grass of a Delaware meadow. As the car carrying Kennedy’s casket passed, the party tossed their bouquets against its side, causing Wright to ask herself, “What did he have that he could do this to people?”

Certainly no one, not even his friends, not myself, would say RFK was a perfect man. In his early years he could be arrogant, rude, restless, impatient. He had a quick temper, and could be aggressive, intolerant, opinionated. He made enemies. Lots of them.

And the book’s author astutely wonders what must have gone through RFK’s mind as he walked in the march during Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. After all, RFK as Attorney General, authorized the wiretapping of King’s phones in the early 60s as a way to monitor such marches. Perhaps it’s a case of two people who early in their relationship, don’t understand each other and view each other with suspicion, yet over time, grow to realize the depth, value, and goodness of the other. Whatever went through his mind that day, or for that matter, in the turbulent painful years after his brother’s death, by 1968, what came out in Robert Kennedy was a gentleness… a person troubled by Vietnam, poverty, racial injustice.

You can speculate, and many have, on what might have been different, had he succeeded in reaching the presidency. Many describe it saying simply, this country would have been different and “…even his enemies would concede, he meant what he said.” It is likely Vietnam would have ended sooner, with so much less carnage. Things like the bombing of Cambodia, and the killings at Kent State, would have been avoided. Watergate might never have happened, and the young and minorities would have had a champion in the White House that could have addressed poverty, racial discrimination and disillusionment. But, it didn’t happen, so no one can say.

For myself, the question now is, will the hopeful future leaders in this election incorporate this vision and lead us where those men of the past – Medger Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert Kennedy, and others – were trying to take us? Can they?

The end of the book’s Prologue provides a hint of an answer:

“The stars may never be aligned as they were in 1968, and Americans may wait decades for another year as pivotal….Or perhaps not. There are things that Robert Kennedy did and said during his campaign that only the brother of a martyred president could have done and said, but there are others that another candidate could easily do and say, if the American people demanded them. John Nolan, who scheduled many of Kennedy’s appearances that spring, believes ‘ What he did was not really that mystical. All it requires is someone who knows himself, and has some courage.'”

It would be nice to not have to wait decades more for some future mystical pivotal moment, when maybe it can be now that another inspires such hope again…..

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