This week we continue our look at the pivotal year of 1968 and the profound cultural shift in America that resulted from events that year. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 40 years ago this week. Whether it was the assassinations of MLK and RFK or the Stonewall Riots or the bloody anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968 was a pivotal year that sparked great changes. Many issues that sprang vividly to life in 1968 — politics, sex, birth control, war, human rights, arts and space exploration — are issues that still unite and divide Americans. Throughout this year, we'll take a look at key issues from 1968 that continue to resonate in 2008.
June 4, 1968, was shaping up to be the most joyous day in Robert F. Kennedy's political life. After months of exhaustive campaigning for president, he was facing a crucial showdown against U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the pivotal Democratic presidential primary in California. He had good reason to be hopeful that smoggy, overcast day in Los Angeles. Instead of spending the day with mobs of supporters and staffers, however, he elected to watch the returns with his family and a few close friends at the Malibu beach home of film director John Frankenheimer.
Eventually, though, Kennedy knew he had to get to the Ambassador Hotel near downtown Los Angeles, where excitement grew within his campaign as news came that he was inching past McCarthy in California and that South Dakota, also having its primary, had given 50 percent of its vote to Kennedy over Hubert Humphrey and McCarthy. Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to the hotel. They were late. Kennedy encouraged Frankenheimer to speed up. But after missing a freeway exit, Kennedy said to Frankenheimer: "Take it easy, John. Life is too short."
Kennedy arrived at the hotel at 7:15 p.m. He would be mortally wounded by an assassin's bullet in five hours. By the next day, he was dead. His short life — he was 42 — ended June 6, 1968.
In his new book, "The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy And 82 Days That Inspired America," author and historian Thurston Clarke takes a detailed and fascinating look at the period between when Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16, 1968, and the early morning of June 5, when he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel. Clarke writes that the bookends of Kennedy's 82 days as a presidential candidate — with his rapturous reception at Kansas State University on his first day of campaigning on March 17 and the euphoric reception the night of his California primary win on June 4 — were "the two most deliriously happy moments of Kennedy's campaign."
We talked to Clarke about his book and about the current presidential campaign, which shares interesting parallels to the 1968 election. The comments were edited:
RFK's 82-day campaign was described by one reporter at the time as a "huge joyous adventure." So much has been written about the passionate nature of the campaign. And yet all through it, everyone — from RFK's closest supporters, the press corps covering him and even the everyday people who came to see him — talked about that sense of doom, that knowledge that he might die doing this. Almost predestined. Why did it have to turn out this way?
You couldn't have Secret Service protection as a candidate then; that came after he was assassinated. He didn't feel that uniformed policemen could protect him. You had some uniformed policemen around then, but he didn't want to be surrounded by armed uniformed police. He would use police for motorcades. And there was some plainclothes police in some towns. A lot of the press felt [his assassination] was inevitable.
Like he was living out some destiny.
After the campaign was over, [reporter Hays] Gory said he realized they were watching a "slow-motion suicide." Also, Kennedy had bitter enemies. He was hated much more passionately than JFK was.
RFK said he didn't want to run for president, but when Johnson made it clear that the war in Vietnam would continue, he had no choice but to run, that it was his moral obligation. I don't really hear today's candidates talk about a moral obligation to run, only why they should win. Has something been lost?
They're afraid of being called sissies. That word "moral" worries them a bit. You're supposed to be tough and interested in power and America's place in the world. In his case, Kennedy felt that after the way he criticized the war and the way he felt about the war and his personal responsibility in launching the war, he had a personal responsibility. If he felt this way, how the hell could you support Johnson for president?
There is a striking parallel between the '68 election and 2008's election in that an unpopular war was/is going on. Are there other connections between issues in '68 and issues in 2008?
I think Katrina. Katrina pointed out that the difference between race and poverty still exists. That was the domestic crisis that you could compare to the [1960s] race riots in the fact that it shocked Americans. People looked at race riots and said, "How could this happen to us?" The same thing with Katrina. It was the same reaction: How could this be happening in America? Katrina was as destructive to our views of ourselves as to what kind of people we are.
Hillary Clinton is still explaining comments she made recently which her critics interpreted that she was staying in the race because a tragedy like RFK suffered might strike Obama. What did you think of those comments when you heard them?
Let me back up. I was in Indianapolis a month ago for a premiere of a documentary about the April 4th speech Kennedy gave when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was with some black community leaders, one of whom said, "We ought to put it out on the table. I know what you're thinking. This could happen to Barack." I don't know what [Clinton] meant, but it's a pretty dangerous thing to string together Kennedy and assassination in the same sentence. Those are pretty loaded words. To be fair to Hillary, it would only be human nature to have these thoughts. Obama supporters certainly are. The Secret Service is thinking about it.
RFK took responsibility for his decisions regarding the Vietnam war and apologized for the path the war had taken. Do you think a candidate like Clinton would have benefited from the same tack by simply saying, "I was wrong. I am sorry?"
Sure. I don't understand why it's so hard to do. He did it in his first speech in Kansas. He starts the campaign that way. He wanted to get it off the table. He acknowledged the effort may have been doomed from the start.
So why can't a candidate simply say they're wrong?
Pride. That's the reason. People can't bear to say they're wrong.
Many books have been written about RFK. So what did you learn about the man during the course of your reporting that has stuck with you above all else?
I knew something about Bobby Kennedy but felt I didn't know him as well as JFK. There was an experience among the reporters who covered [RFK] on the campaign which was the closer you were to Bobby Kennedy, the more you liked him. The closer you got to the man the more you realized that ruthlessness wasn't in play. He was extremely shy and tenderhearted. By doing this book I felt that I had a similar kind of an experience and I came to know him as these people knew him. The more time I spent, the more I saw the shy tenderhearted man beneath the hard exterior. There was a vulnerability about him that made people want to embrace him. He wasn't a slick speaker, he'd stutter and stammer. He seemed to be making up his mind as he said it. There was a certain vulnerability that appealed to people. It touched me. The more I got closer to him doing this, the more I saw why people were so devoted to him.
Contact Greg Morago at email@example.com.