A Life Cut Short but a Vision That May Rise Again

A Life Cut Short but a Vision That May Rise Again
Blake Fleetwood | June 6, 2024

“Minutes later, a commotion on television woke me up. Kennedy had been shot in the head. Nobody knew anything, but everybody knew everything. The nightmares began. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stay awake. I kept waking up thinking it was all a dream.” – Blake Fleetwood

By Blake Fleetwood, The Kennedy Beacon

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Fifty-six years ago today, on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy was killed and the destiny of the United States in the 20th century was irrevocably altered. Today, his son Robert Kennedy Jr. is seeking to finally realize his father’s quest.

The spring of 1968 was exhilarating and tumultuous. America was on the cusp of transformative change, and the fundamental politics of power were shifting. The civil rights movement centered on the unjust Vietnam War and the empowering idea – not seen or accepted since the 1930s – that students had the obligation to challenge authority.

Events were fast hurtling toward a new trajectory – an inflection point – that would forever bond these evolving attitudes into lasting public policy, much like what we need today.

Senator Eugene McCarthy was running an energetic antiwar campaign against the carnage in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April. Students and workers were protesting all over the world.

But with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, this golden promise was never to be fulfilled. The country turned into a darker, meaner place in the following decades.

In March, Bobby Kennedy, with great anguish, decided to contest the nomination of a powerful sitting war president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Facing angry crowds wherever he went, Johnson declared that he would not seek reelection. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his candidacy but declined to enter the primaries, relying on party bosses to deliver the needed delegates.

In the last week of May, McCarthy and his army of idealistic young people, students, and intellectuals astonishingly beat Kennedy in the Oregon primary. The results of the June California primary would decide whether Kennedy’s quest for the nomination, and indeed the presidency, was viable. Kennedy was relying on the more traditional voting blocs of the excluded – Latinos, blacks, and working-class and poor whites from the rust belt counties. They embraced his voice to speak for their interests.

On the night of the California primary, I stayed up until 3 a.m. waiting on the final results. After Kennedy’s victory speech, I dozed off in a contented sleep. Minutes later, a commotion on television woke me up. Kennedy had been shot in the head. Nobody knew anything, but everybody knew everything. The nightmares began. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stay awake. I kept waking up thinking it was all a dream … but the television was still on … He was shot in the head … He was shot in the head … over and over again … until he finally died 26 hours later.

Is it possible that the act of one madman could so drastically alter the course of history?

With the hindsight of 56 years, I can see how different the world would have been had Bobby Kennedy lived. Perhaps his assassination was even more significant and ruinous than the earlier deaths of his brother, John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King Jr.

In the five years after his brother was shot, Kennedy had developed a newfound, perpetual sense of outrage at the racial, political, and social injustices that were crippling our country – and what he saw changed him and made him a better man. His daughter Kerry told me of the night he came back from visiting sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. He was very angry and his strong words made a lasting impression on his young children. “It is outrageous how these people live,” Kennedy had said. “No one in America should live like that. It’s a national disgrace.”

Kennedy was not alone in his anger.

The success of the civil rights movement, and the hope that it had begotten, inspired and empowered students all over the world. Evil – in the form of racism, sexism, Cold War colonialism – could be challenged and defeated. And it was our duty, as the children of a prosperous society, to question everything.

The protests leapt from country to country like wildfires feeding on each other.

A global uprising of exhilarating hope spread to students around the world – amplified by television images and electronic media reports as never before. It was the time of the Prague Spring and, later that summer, there were massive protests against Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia. There were student demonstrations in Poland (against Soviet domination), Italy, Germany, and Mexico (against a feudal ruling class), to name a few.

In France, 40 million students and workers went on strike for the entire month of May, protesting the Algerian War and worker injustices.

And Bobby Kennedy, a compassionate Catholic already appalled by injustices toward the disenfranchised, was inspired by the newly emerging possibilities.

He picked up the torch and rhetoric of the times: “Let us not have tired answers.”

He famously said, “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and say ‘Why not’?”

Kennedy was the perfect messenger, the royal heir, who could bridge the divide between the old world and the newly emerging one. He had strong ties to the traditional Democratic Party machine that had elected his brother, and yet was able to harness the energy, anger, and hope that galvanized the post-World War II generation.

Bobby was also a rare mix of radical, but compassionate, ideas and somewhat conservative personal values. Self-sacrifice, self-discipline, stoicism, and patriotism, rooted in moral conviction, formed the core of his personality, but he was also perfectly in tune with his times.

For most political observers, there is no doubt that Bobby would have won the nomination. After winning the California primary, he was a scant 108 delegates behind Humphrey. He was picking up momentum, sucking the air from the McCarthy crusade. McCarthy’s student supporters would have united with the Kennedy delegates. Kennedy had a unifying idealism that would have brought the party together and probably even won the support of machine politicians like Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago.

And a charismatic Kennedy would also have beaten a flawed and awkward Richard Nixon.

After Kennedy’s untimely death, much of that thrilling, anticipated change was stalled in the US for decades to come.

Almost immediately after the spring assassinations, the movements that had sprouted in the sixties began to splinter, and parts turned violent. The civil rights movement spawned the Black Liberation Front and thuggish elements of the Black Panthers. Some SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) fringe groups evolved into the occasionally violent Weathermen.

As it happened, the chaos and violence of that summer’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and other protests, triggered a backlash that ensured Nixon’s narrow victory over Humphrey. Nixon’s trump card for change was a “Secret Plan” to end the war.

But despite Nixon’s Secret Plan, the Vietnam War continued for another seven years, at a cost of 38,000 more young American lives.

The nasty Nixon era was followed by a dreary progression of conservative, uninspiring leaders – Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and another Bush.

The grand dreams and hopes of 1968 were gone.

But if Robert F. Kennedy had lived …

It is an irresistible, tantalizing, and admittedly unanswerable question.

But I can dream that Nixon would have faded away. George McGovern would not have been nominated in 1972 – the Democratic Party would not have splintered. Jimmy Carter would not have been elected president in 1976.

Bobby would have brought us to a golden age of justice, judicious legislation, and a compassionate Supreme Court. Instead, Nixon and Ford nominated five conservative Supreme Court justices.

Kennedy would have been more supportive of the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement.

Kennedy’s aide and speechwriter, Peter Edelman, has said that there is no question that RFK would have negotiated an early end to the Vietnam War by 1969, and worked hard toward racial reconciliation and the narrowing of the income gap at home.

Kennedy would have adopted a wiser, more restrained foreign policy (more like the advanced European countries of today), and would not have felt the need to aggressively bully the rest of the world.

With a calming of the international waters – and abandonment of the belief that our great military might and wealth could impose an American solution to every international problem – foreign relations would have been far less tumultuous. The American Embassy in Iran might not have been seized; the oil crisis and the recessions of the seventies and eighties would have been milder, without the additional seven years of crippling Vietnam War debt.

We would have developed a different, easier relationship with the rest of the world. Gentler, not so overbearing.

Today, Bobby has a continuing, extraordinary hold on our imagination, not because he was a martyr, but because he (and his brother) represented a hope for a better future.

The golden years that might have been continue to haunt us.

If Kennedy had lived, I don’t believe that we would be in Iraq or the Middle East today, nor do I believe that 9/11 would have happened. I believe that we would have a better, more admired, safer country, a more humane country, and a more generous society.

We were cheated out of the chance to see how his ideas and dreams would have played out. Now his son has a chance to fix that.

RFK was not a perfect man, none of us are, but he was the right man at the right time and would have moved us gracefully into a new era.

Bobby never failed us. He never grew old. He never sold out.

Instead, he opened up a vision for the future. Of course, he was denied the opportunity to lead us there, but he showed us the way.

His legacy now lives on with his namesake son.

Bobby Jr. is ready to pick up the torch and fight for his father’s grand vision. He has the passion and the energy to confront a corrupt oligarchy that has taken control of America.

He will fight the military-industrial complex that has led to endless expensive wars. He will end the corruption that has left Washington in the control of big-money corporations and their lobbyists.

The Democrats abandoned and neglected blue-collar workers, small-business shopkeepers, and farmers long ago in favor of coastal elites and minorities. Bobby Jr. will restore our decimated middle class and bring America to a just and equitable future that would make his father proud and realize RFK’s vision – tragically cut short 56 years ago today.

Blake Fleetwood was a reporter for The New York Times and has written on various topics for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Village Voice, The Atlantic, and Washington Monthly.

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