In 1968, murders (of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) and Democratic convention riots (over Vietnam) elected Richard Nixon, who brought Watergate criminality to the White House before resigning in disgrace.
Yet, in all that bloody retrospect, something was there that is missing today, a possibility of human connection amid chaos, a sense of being together in a time of division and doubt that now seems gone forever.
A recently rediscovered 44-year-old letter evokes such loss. In it, a woman with an upper East Side Manhattan address writes:
“On the afternoon of June 7, thousands of people were in line (some for as long as 6 hours) waiting to enter St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pay our last respects to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy
“Out of nowhere, a wagon appeared with real ice water and thousands of paper cups, pushed by a man and two young women in white uniforms. The water they passed out to hundreds of us was the sweetest ever tasted, not just because we were thirsty, but it was a gesture so beautifully appropriate on that terrible day.
“There was no sign on the wagon. I only found out later the people were from McCall’s Magazine—-I’ll never forget it.”
I was that man. Watching those people in 95-degree heat from the window of an air-conditioned Park Avenue office had become unbearable. Bringing them water seemed like the only imaginable human response.
Two months later, during the Democratic convention, Jules Feiffer and I got off a delegates bus as young protesters were being herded into a park by helmeted Chicago police with clubs. After we were separated and tear-gassed, a teenager was shoving me to a water fountain to soak my handkerchief and put it over my eyes. I did as I was told.
Decades later, in the movie “The American President,” a White House adviser tells the Oval Office occupant, “People want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.”
A discouraged President replies, “People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference.”
We once did.