Wednesday, June 04, 2008

RFK: Tears for a Tough Guy

Forty years ago tonight, hours before Robert Kennedy was killed, I was campaigning as a Eugene McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention. When a man rose to spew out Kennedy hatred, I cut him off and said, "I'm running to stop the war. If McCarthy drops out, I'll vote for Kennedy."

Two days later, from an office window, I was looking down at a line of people more than a mile long inching toward St. Patrick's Cathedral on a brutally hot day to view RFK's body lying there.

Watching became unbearable, and I went down with others to wheel a plastic barrel on a dolly and hand out paper cups of water. The air was heavy with heat and tears. Without words, there was an occasional meeting of eyes in shared sadness. In that year of political murder and chaos, we were mourning the loss of more than one man.

Robert Kennedy had been his brother's fierce protector, enforcer, campaign manager, Attorney General and, after the assassination, keeper of the flame. But like JFK before him, in the last days of his life, he became something more.

In late 1963, stunned by grief, he was enraged with me for publishing excerpts from a book of family essays about his oldest brother Joe, who died in World War II. "He keeps sending me rockets." Pierre Salinger said sadly. "If he needs to fight with someone now," I answered, "it isn't going to be me."

The book was in the Library of Congress for all to see, but I sent RFK the copyright of the article, along with a contribution to the Presidential library, and he was mollified to the point of writing back that he was "touched" by an editorial I had written about JFK's death.

Later we skirmished over excerpts from a guileless book by Red Fay, a JFK buddy, but soon afterward RFK, by then Senator from New York, came to lunch in our magazine's dining room to make peace and went into the kitchen afterward to charm the chef by comparing notes on their Irish ancestors.

In 1967, appalled by the unending war in Vietnam, I was among those urging him to oppose Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries. He declined, on the grounds that it would look like a personal vendetta, and we turned to Senator Eugene McCarthy.

When Kennedy declared his candidacy, many of us reluctantly stuck with McCarthy, a vain, arrogant man who had nonetheless been there when it counted. But during the campaign, RFK found his voice, just as his brother had in 1960. If he had lived, he would have won the presidency.

At his funeral Mass, Ted Kennedy said, "My brother need not be idolized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life [but] be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

"Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'"

Before the year was out, Ted Sorensen called about a memoir RFK had written about the Cuban Missile Crisis. My company bought all the rights for $1 million, which would go to trust funds for his children. We ran it in McCall's and arranged for publication throughout the world.

Looking back from another century, Robert Kennedy's book could have served as a primer for George W. Bush in confronting his pseudo-nuclear Iraq crisis. With missiles 90 miles from our shores, JFK rejected military advice for an air strike or invasion, lined up support from the United Nations, gave the Russians every chance to back down and, when they did, ordered that there be no gloating about victory. No CIA “slam dunk,” “Mission Accomplished” or “Bring it on!”

Robert Kennedy played a crucial part in those thirteen days, and like his brother before him, was still learning and growing during his all-too-few years. Looking at today's politicians, that alone is cause for tears.

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