Fifty years ago tonight, the world changed.
Or at least I want to think it did.
A gunman – some now think, two – shot Bobby Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. He died the next day. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary. It is now widely surmised, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither be proved nor disproved, that Kennedy would have gone on to win the presidency, sparing America and the world from years of bloody conflict in Vietnam and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption and eventual disgrace. I often wonder how different the world would now be had Kennedy lived.
At least that’s what my heart keeps telling me.
The facts seem to say something else. They suggest that Kennedy had a slim chance to capture the Democratic nomination. His anti-war rival Gene McCarthy wasn’t inclined to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had a firm grip on delegates for the 33 states that didn’t hold primaries. LBJ hated RFK and wasn’t likely to release those delegates to that “damn pipsqueak.” Even a Kennedy aide assessed years later that the campaign was losing altitude and that Kennedy was considering accepting the vice president slot if it was offered.
But Kennedy alone, it seemed, could draw working-class white, black and Latino voters into an umbrella coalition. He was an “activist champion of the country’s disinherited,” argues Chris Matthews of MSNBC.
I’ve posted one of my favorite photos of Kennedy that supports that point. It was taken on the campaign trail in Detroit in May 1968. McCarthy or Humphrey wouldn’t have drawn half the crowd. Nixon wouldn’t have tried.
Bobby certainly excited a 17-year-old in Asheville. It is sad that after 50 years Kennedy is still the only politician that I ever enthusiastically supported. I haven’t decided if I’m more to blame or our politics.
I stayed up late that night to listen to the returns from California. I watched Bobby tell the crowd in the hotel lobby that he was on to Chicago. I turned off the TV and went to bed, buoyed by the prospects.
I awoke the next morning. I turned on the transistor by the bedside, as was my habit. They were playing this clip over and over. I later learned it was Andrew West, a reporter for the Mutual Broadcasting System, who had witnessed the assassination.
“Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”
I cried, and the world changed.
Or at least I think it did.
Whether it did or not, we ought to remember.