Even after all these years, Canton, New York is still a long way from anywhere. The closest major city is Ottawa. But in February 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy made the trek to the north country to take our pulse on the issues of the day, in particular, Vietnam.
My friend, Timothy Evans, and I seized an opportunity and taped the senator's speech, on my reel to reel machine. That tape stayed in my hands for forty-one years until I had it copied for the St. Lawrence University archives.
Bobby Kennedy's talk that day may have been routine for him, but it was electric for us. The closer you got to him, the more you felt the positive charge. Everywhere he went -- and not just because he carried the banner of his assassinated brother, the President -- Bobby infused his circumstances with crackling energy. His political jokes about the loyal opposition were trenchant but never ad hominem. His perorations on poverty in the third world, Appalachia or Harlem were founded on data he memorized with compassionate attention and driven by a compelling moral logic that said "this is not right." His sheer earnestness was palpable. At the end of the speech, Bobby passed straight up the auditorium aisle, the better to press the flesh. I ran downstairs to shake his hand. We shared a nanosecond of eye contact, and I felt the searing heat of his incandescent smile. I have never forgotten the frisson of that encounter.
Reviewing his St. Lawrence speech nowadays, however, I see that the Bobby we heard then is not the Bobby most of us choose to remember. He was still months away from concluding that his brother's policy of military engagement in Viet Nam, intended to staunch a spreading communism in Southeast Asia, was a geopolitical strategic mistake. He had yet to admit to himself what so many college students had already surmised, that the American-sponsored South Vietnamese government was incorrigibly corrupt; that North Viet Nam's leader, Ho Chi Minh, was a revolutionary fighter against whom no assemblage of military hardware and no number of troops would ever win a decisive victory. And, he could not yet see that the war would become so unpopular among younger, Americans that it was soon to be lost on the home front. Nor could Bobby foresee how this fruitless war would bring down President Johnson, opening a door for Eugene McCarthy, or even for Robert Kennedy, to run for president on an anti-war platform.
At SLU, Bobby spun a web of rhetorical questions about staying the course in Viet Nam, intensifying the bombing, leveraging the parties to the negotiating table, engaging with or disregarding the Chinese and Soviets. Clearly, he was churning options in his own mind, while maintaining apparent loyalty to LBJ's war which was, after all, an extension of JFK's.
Yet, in time, with the increasing polarization of the country and the stunning surprise of a successful presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire that catapulted Senator McCarthy to prominence as the anti-war candidate..., in time Bobby changed his entire posture. He plunged into the race, pushed upstart McCarthy aside, and reveled in the open space created by LBJ's withdrawal from consideration for another term. We all know the rest. After a string of inspiring primary victories, culminating in California, Bobby, like his brother, and like Martin Luther King just months earlier, was brought down by a dissident's bullet.
From grad school in Charlottesville, I watched Bobby give his victory speech in that California hotel, late at night on June 6, 1968. He flashed the victory sign, saying "And now let's move on to Chicago and the convention...." I turned off the TV, went to bed, and only heard about the shooting the next morning, from my roommate. I was speechless. Later that day, driving homeward toward Buffalo to see my parents, I pulled off to the roadside and wept uncontrollably.
What explains the intensity of all this emotion -- emanating from Bobby Kennedy and swirling around him? It was not just his abundant charm with its high political value. He had rare power because he carried within him the amalgam of his own hopes and his dead brother's, for the country and the world. Most of all, the magic lay in a simple fact. It was his resolute belief in himself, plus our willing belief in him, that he would become -- that he could indeed make us all become -- agents of transformative change. Bobby compelled us to think that profound social change was never merely about tinkering with legislation or jiggering government budgets. Rather, fundamental change requires subjecting to honest scrutiny deeply held values that might have outlived their usefulness or might never have had any genuine legitimacy.
Last year, visiting Powell's Books, in Portland, I found something priceless in the rare book room. A smallish book, rebound in blue calf, with new end papers, spine stamped in gold leaf, inscribed to a friend by its author in about 1967. Robert Kennedy's To Seek a Newer World reflects his growing discomfort with the way things were trending in America and abroad. It's the roadmap Bobby would have taken, had he lived to win the presidency. He did not live, and there's the pity, and yet he does.
Bobby was no saint. Occasionally ruthless, he even served for a time, at his nefarious father's behest, as assistant counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy's infamous anti-communist committee. Yet, Bobby had a capacity for growth, right in the public eye, as few politicians ever do. He investigated, pondered, analyzed, and changed course, drawing us onwards with him. Today, when the world seems, again, to be going to hell in a hand basket, with all of us complicit in the planet's undoing, Bobby's model is tonic.
It was the courage to confront the errors of our ways and the losses in our lives that humanized Bobby Kennedy. Victim though he was, he was also triumphant, for he embodied the tragic vision of Aeschylus: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
Moving, now, toward the November election, and slouching toward our collective future, we all have regret and shame on our hands, and yet, as Bobby would have had us remember, we can change, and we must, and it can be for the better.
David Emblidge edited Beneath the Metropolis: Secret Lives of Cities (Running Press), "My Day" Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Columns (Da Capo), The Appalachian Trail Reader (Oxford Univ. Press). Emblidge's essays and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, Saturday Review, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and numerous scholarly journals. His essay "The Palmer Method: Penmanship and the Tenor of Our Time" won the McGinnis Prize for best nonfiction, 2007, in Southwest Review. Formerly Editor-in-Chief at The Mountaineers Books, he is now Associate Professor, Emerson College (Writing, Literature and Publishing Dept.) and is writing a narrative history of American bookstores.
David Emblidge, © 2008