Few assassinations have potentially changed U.S. history like Robert F. Kennedy’s, just minutes after winning the California Democratic presidential primary on June 4, 1968.
And while there are always those who wonder “What if,” all that can realistically be examined are the 82 days between March 16 and June 4, when Kennedy was running for president. That’s been done several times, starting in 1969 and steadily since. The Library of Congress lists 163 books about Kennedy, plus another 41 about his assassination.
But author Thurston Clarke manages to bring a fresh angle to his new book: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America. He finds new fruit in showing how the country is different today because of Kennedy’s campaign.
This is no easy task. RFK biographies have come at the rate of several a year since the first in 1962. Yet Clarke’s book stands apart in several ways.
First, it benefits from the obvious parallels between 1968 and 2008 — an unpopular war, an unpopular president and a charismatic young Democrat seeking the presidency.
But, most importantly, Clarke shows how the Kennedy of March 1968 differed from the Kennedy of June 1968 — and how the country changed with him. Eschewing simple biography and the rose-colored view common to many Kennedy books, Clarke comes away with a focused, unique and worthy discovery of what happened during those two and a half months.
“I didn’t pretend to do a bio,” Clarke said in an interview with The Hill. “This was 82 days one man ran for the presidency. And during those 82 days this was a man at his best.”
Softened and deepened by his brother’s murder five years earlier, Kennedy in 1968 was a rare candidate who paid attention to poverty, racism, war and urban strife in a way he never had before, displaying a surprising sense of humor and charisma along the way.
One example Clarke gives takes place in Indianapolis, where Kennedy broke the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination to a largely African-American audience on the evening of April 4, 1968. Speaking extemporaneously, he quoted Aeschylus and referred to his brother’s death for one of the only times in public.
Clarke finds new information in Kennedy’s private decisions that show he brushed aside concerns for his safety. In a hotel ballroom in Salt Lake City, where police had told him of a bomb threat backstage, Kennedy told the audience of the threat but pledged to stay. “Anyone who wants to stay, I’ll stay with you,” he said, before joking: “I can’t think of anybody I would rather go with than you people here tonight.”
Not even King’s assassination slowed Kennedy’s movement forward. He continued to shun all but a single bodyguard. And in one particularly chilling moment that Clarke relates, Kennedy told a minister in Washington, D.C., after the riots that followed King’s death, “I’m afraid there are guns between me and the White House.”
“Every public appearance that Kennedy made that spring was an act of courage; every motorcade in an open car an act of defiance,” Clarke writes. “Before King’s assassination, an attempt on his life had seemed likely; afterward it seemed inevitable.”
In the end, Clarke finds and shows the real lesson of a brief event 40 years ago. Kennedy’s last campaign may have ended in tragedy, but it lived up to its promise: Two million Americans of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities came together to line up along railroad tracks between New York and Washington, D.C., to see a funeral train that carried Kennedy’s body to burial on June 8, 1968 at Arlington National Cemetery. The crowds held up American flags, held hats over their hearts and held aloft handwritten signs.
“Had he been assassinated before running for president, or in the early days of the campaign, it is inconceivable that two million people would have turned out,” Clarke writes. “Or that there would ever have been such a train, or that his phantom presidency would remain so haunting … It is Robert Kennedy’s campaign that explains the grief.”
ABOUT THE BOOK
Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America By Thurston Clarke
Henry Holt and Company, 2008
336 pages, $25
Q: Why another Kennedy book? How and when did the idea come about?
It came in 2004, before the election. I had done a book about JFK’s inaugural address, and I came across the speech that Robert Kennedy gave in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. … I thought “There could be a book in this.” I was discouraged a little because there’s already so many books out there, but then I realized it could speak to the present.
Q: One of the interesting ways you set your book apart from others is that you visited some of the actual places that Kennedy was during that campaign. What was that experience like?
Well, I’m a travel writer also, and I like to have my writing rooted in geographics and immediacy, so it seemed good to go eyeball these places, like Indianapolis and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. I also wanted to get people who hadn’t talked about him in 40 years.
Q: What surprises did you find?
There were a lot of very emotional responses. A lot of interviews with these local campaign volunteers ended in tears even though they had only been with Bobby Kennedy for half an hour or an hour. All of them would show me posters and buttons they had saved for 40 years. One man had kept a car — and in perfect condition — because Bobby Kennedy had rode in it once.
Q: How about the actual locations? How had they changed?
The park in Indianapolis has now been turned into a larger park, although the towns that he whistle-stopped through in Nebraska are pretty much unchanged. And unfortunately, life on the Pine Ridge reservation is much the same, if you look at the statistics on life expectancy and suicide and addiction. It was the poorest county in the country then and I think it still is, or close to it.
Q: Make the case about how the book speaks to the present.
You have an increasingly unpopular war and an unpopular president, although, of course his term is ending so it’s not quite like [then-President Lyndon] Johnson. But the American people are fatigued by war and domestic crises. Then it was riots and unrest. Now it’s Hurricane Katrina and a growing gap between the rich and the poor that shows real domestic dissatisfaction. One thing that Kennedy understood … it’s hard to follow a hard, bitter, divisive campaign with a high-minded, moral presidency. He was careful not to make too many personal attacks against his opponents, for example. He sensed the national soul was wounded, and to heal that you can’t run a divisive campaign and then turn around on Inauguration Day, give an address like his brother’s, and expect people to take you seriously. His campaign, the legacy of it, is that it gives us an example of how to run for the presidency at a time of crisis.
Q: Looking at the photographs from the campaign, there seem to be obvious parallels to Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaDems engage in friendly debate for DNC chair Army: Manning to lose transgender benefits Why I’m leaving the Democratic Party MORE’s (D-Ill.) campaign stops.
The parallels are that they both inspire the young and can speak to both white and black Americans. And that they’re running in a similar time when the national soul needs healing. Otherwise, it’s a different time now. It’s a 24-hour news cycle and there is this imperative that if you’re attacked you have to respond immediately.