Weekday mornings in early June promise a sweet, almost dreamy period, one that heralds pleasant weather, whispers the possibilities of summer, and forever reminds us that the school year is over. The post-Memorial Day stretch permits a few more languid days without air conditioning, and so windows remain open for birds to fill bedrooms with their songs at daybreak. A cool, almost misty air enters the homes as early commuters drive by to begin another shift.
For children, the first weeks of June are filled with joy, a sense of finality, and the excitement of entering a new grade and unknown future. Life has yet to burden innocent minds with high expectations and unrealistic aspirations. Childhood allows the embrace of days soaked in sunshine and chlorine. This feeling is eternal, one of the few sentiments in American culture that have withstood the passage of time. And so it was on June 5, 1968, when children woke up, overwhelmed with anticipation and impatience as they entered their final stretch of academic confinement. But that Wednesday morning was different, with the nation learning that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot. He died within 24 hours. Fifty years later, we have yet to fully digest the emotional and cultural consequences of Kennedy’s assassination.
Kerry Kennedy, just eight years old, woke up that morning and turned on the television to watch Bugs Bunny. She had accompanied three of her ten siblings to California for her father’s final stretch in the state’s crucial primary. Her parents headed to Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel the previous evening to await the returns. It was through the television that she learned what happened. A news flash interrupted the cartoon, telling Kerry what happened to her father. By late evening, Kerry, along with her fellow Americans, learned that Kennedy died. It was a cruel encore of just five years before, when the 35th president was killed in Dallas. An 8-mm film forever burned Americans’ disbelieving eyes with John F. Kennedy’s final drive. Now his brother, who just won the Democratic primary in America’s largest state, met a similar fate.
The images of bedlam from the hotel’s kitchen floor are permanently stored in America’s repository of tragic history. Kennedy, a figure even more complex than his older brother, lay mortally wounded with rosary beads stuffed into his hand. There was “a kind of sweet accepting smile on his face,” recalled the journalist and friend Pete Hamill, “as if he knew it would all end this way.” His death, just months after the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, occurred in a year already shattered by the carnage of Vietnam, cultural change, urban riots, and a viscous political realignment. On the morning of June 6th, America’s children entered school knowing summer was imminent, but also carrying that strange, empty feeling when a death occurs or tragedy strikes. Coverage of Kennedy’s death saturated televisions, reminding children that they were living in a nation that would always carry the weight of that shocking event.
Revisiting Bobby Kennedy’s assassination a half century later is to relive the feelings of that period. The children of the late 1960s are now middle-aged adults, well into their baby boomer years and perhaps even retired. But it’s difficult for that generation, or even their descendants, to look back at that decade without reflecting on the cataclysmic deaths of two brothers, one who occupied the White House, the other who could have changed the outcome of the 1968 presidential election. The passing decades have faded much of the Kennedy family’s mythology, one that Americans long nurtured because they associated Jack and Bobby with happier times. “Try to think of the era without them and see if you can do it. It’s impossible, really,” wrote Chris Matthews in his latest book, Bobby Kennedy – A Raging Spirit. “When Jack Kennedy was president in those upbeat years of the early 1960s, then again when Bobby ran for president, the special Kennedy atmosphere captured the day. There was a spring in the country’s step, an excitement that could also, to those threatened, mean trouble.”
A sense of elation commenced with Bobby’s late entrance into the Democratic primary. Kennedy previously told reporters he would “not be a candidate for president under any foreseeable circumstances.” But on March 12, Minnesota’s Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the darling of the upwardly mobile and antiwar left, humiliated President Lyndon Johnson by winning 42 percent of the popular vote in New Hampshire’s primary. Kennedy, who had agonized over his entrance into the race, knew Johnson’s performance opened the way for his campaign. America’s position on the home front and especially abroad reminded him that his long-time rival, Johnson, was in a position beyond political redemption. Just days after McCarthy’s overperformance in New Hampshire, Kennedy announced his presidential bid from the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office Building. Kennedy’s announcement occurred at the same age and from the same room where his brother declared his run in 1960.
America had dramatically changed since John F. Kennedy seduced voters with the promises of the New Frontier. A young family, the campaign jingles, the embrace of television, and the prospect of America’s first Catholic president injected a sense of patriotic adrenaline into the 1960 campaign. There were “high hopes” for Jack and a sense of cultural validation for Catholics who remembered Al Smith’s failed presidential bid in 1928. In 1960, the Everly Brothers and Bobby Darin crooned through the radio, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird proved a national sensation, and Americans flocked to movies like Spartacus in magnificent downtown theaters.
But the frivolity and innocence, however illusory, were shattered on November 22, 1963. Kennedy’s assassination violently shifted America’s cultural fault lines. One afternoon accelerated the nation’s sociological maladies, intensified its political divisions, and evaporated its black-and-white contentment. Americans proceeded on a Technicolor path of disruption, one that had transformed the nation by the time of Bobby’s announcement on March 16, 1968. It was that year when The Doors and Cream blasted from transistor radios, John Updike’s Couples landed on the cover of Time, and 2001: A Space Odyssey played in new suburban cinemas. The country had experienced a dervish frenzy, and Bobby was fully aware of his nation’s turbulent course.
The country was rocked by young students protesting a worsening war in Vietnam. Racial tension exploded and riots destroyed urban neighborhoods. America’s political evolution forever altered its electoral geography. Bobby was embarking on a remarkable campaign that challenged the incumbent president, a man he despised for many years. But the source of this strife stemmed from the White House years of Bobby’s brother. “While he defined his vision more concretely and compellingly than Jack had—from ending a disastrous war and addressing the crisis in the cities to removing a sadly out-of-touch president—he failed to point out that the war, the festering ghettos, and Lyndon Johnson were all part of Jack Kennedy’s legacy,” wrote Larry Tye in his biography of Bobby.
For the 1968 primary, Kennedy metamorphosed into a liberal figure with an economic populist message. Kennedy’s belated entry turned into an audacious crusade, with the candidate addressing racial injustice, income inequality, and the failure of Vietnam. He balanced this message with themes touching upon free enterprise and law and order. Kennedy hoped to appeal to minorities and working-class whites. He quickly became a messianic figure, and the press embellished his New Democrat image. By late March, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection during a televised address. Through his departure, Johnson worked to maintain control of the party machine by supporting Hubert Humphrey, his devoted Vice President. But in the following weeks, Kennedy built momentum as he challenged McCarthy in states like Indiana and Nebraska. His performance in both states, where anti-Catholic sentiments lingered, testified to Kennedy’s favorable electoral position.
In April 4, Kennedy learned that the Rev. King had been assassinated. He relayed the civil rights leader’s death in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis. His words helped spare Indianapolis from the riots that erupted in cities across the country, ultimately leading to nearly 40 people killed and over 2,000 injured. MLK’s assassination served as an unsettling reminder to Kennedy’s family, friends, campaign aides, and traveling press. During Kennedy’s first campaign stop in Kansas, the press corps stopped at a restaurant where the legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin asked, “Do you think this guy has the stuff to go all the way?”
“Yes, of course he has the stuff to go all the way,” replied Newsweek’s John J. Lindsay. “But he’s not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it. Just as sure as we’re sitting here somebody is going to shoot him. He’s out there now waiting for him. And, please God, I don’t think we’ll have a country after it.”
Despite what happened in 1963, the Secret Service had yet to provide protection of presidential and vice presidential candidates and nominees during the 1964 election or the 1968 primary. But all the signs were there that Kennedy needed protection. The frenzied crowds increased in size, taking a physical toll on the candidate. In one instance, “he was pulled so hard that he tumbled into the car door, splitting his lip and breaking a front tooth that required capping,” writes Nye. “He ended up on a regimen of vitamins and antibiotics to fight fatigue and infection…For most politicians, the challenge was to attract crowds; for Bobby, it was to survive them.” In California, just 82 days after his announcement, Kennedy met the fate that so many feared.
Bobby Kennedy was a complicated figure from a family that continues to engage America’s imagination. In his autobiography, the novelist Philip Roth, who recently passed away, reflected on Kennedy’s assassination:
He was by no means a political figure constructed on anything other than the human scale, and so, the night of his assassination and for days afterward, one felt witness to the violent cutting down not of a monumental force for justice and social change like King or the powerful embodiment of a people’s massive misfortunes or a titan of religious potency but rather of a rival—of a vital, imperfect, high-strung, egotistical, rivalrous, talented brother, who could be just as nasty as he was decent. The murder of a boyish politician of forty-two, a man so nakedly ambitious and virile, was a crime against ordinary human hope as well as against the claims of robust, independent appetite and, coming after the murders of President Kennedy at forty-six and Martin Luther King at thirty-nine, evoked the simplest, most familiar forms of despair.
For those schoolchildren and their parents in June 1968, Kennedy’s campaign offered a sense of nostalgia. They remembered the exuberance of his brother’s campaign, the optimism of his administration, and the possibilities of the 1960s. For the nation’s large ethnic Catholic voting bloc, another Kennedy reminded them of that feeling of validation in the 1960 election. Of course, it had been a tumultuous decade for these voters. They lived in cities that had precipitously declined since JFK’s campaign visits in 1960. Railroad stations ended passenger service, theaters closed, factories shuttered, and new highways offered an exodus to suburbia. As Catholics, they prayed for the conversion of Russia, adapted to Vatican II reforms, and adjusted to new parishes in the developing outskirts. Young draftees were shipped off to a catastrophic war, which only intensified their feelings of disillusionment. Their disenchantment raised questions about their sustained support for Democrats. Kennedy may have proved formidable for Nixon in the general election, but the Catholic vote was increasingly up for grabs.
Pat Buchanan understood this electoral opportunity for Republicans. In a 1971 memo, Buchanan argued that Catholics were the largest bloc of available Democratic voters for the GOP: “The fellows who join the K.of C. (Knights of Columbus), who make mass and communion every morning, who go on retreats, who join the Holy Name society, who fight against abortion in their legislatures, who send their kids to Catholic schools, who work on assembly lines and live in Polish, Irish, Italian and Catholic communities or who have headed to the suburbs—these are the majority of Catholics; they are where our voters are.”
In subsequent presidential elections, Catholic voters flocked to Democrats and Republicans. Their electoral preferences were driven by the issues of the moment and often by location. The geographical divide of our politics has only intensified. The 2016 presidential election encapsulated this trend. Voters in Appalachia and the Rust Belt overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump that year. Many of these voters previously supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In 1968, these voters likely appreciated Kennedy’s campaign message. But the tragedy of the nation is now a loss of optimism—the belief that tomorrow will be a better day. Americans are overwhelmed by ideological tension and socio-economic angst. The prosperity enjoyed by large metropolitan regions has not spilled over into the heartland. There is no nostalgia for 1968 because countless Americans understand that the nation has failed to address income inequality, job displacement, urban decline, and mass poverty. It was so long ago, but America did lose its innocence on November 22, 1963. Bobby Kennedy’s death in 1968 served as a reminder that it would never return.
Charles F, McElwee III is a writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee.