Innocence that died with Bobby Kennedy has never returned

MIKE LITTWIN

June 04, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

It was 25 years and a lifetime ago, and yet I remember it so clearly. Every detail.

All I have to do is close my eyes and it's all there. The shots. The blood. The cradled head. The gun knocked from the assassin's hand. Rosey Grier bear-hugging the man we would come to know as Sirhan Sirhan, as if trying to squeeze his life's breath into the body of the fallen son.

I screamed. I must have.

"They shot Bobby. They shot Bobby."

It was late, just after 3 a.m. in the East. I had been up watching the California primary returns in that most political of seasons and had fallen asleep in front of the TV. But something woke me. The gunshots? A sense of dread? A friend later told me how he had shot awake at 4 a.m., drenched in sweat, knowing only that something terrible had occurred.

I remember -- so clearly, even now -- how my mother raced in from her room and how my sister raced in from hers. And how we hugged and how we cried and how we said it wasn't possible that another Kennedy had been taken.

It was 25 years ago tomorrow in that awful year -- 1968 -- when the country threatened to come apart.

I remember calling people. It was nearly 4 a.m. by then, and yet I went to the phone. I was 19, and I needed my friends to share this awful, immutable truth. I needed someone to scream with.

We knew immediately what it meant. That, somehow, on some level, everything was lost. It was the end of the innocence.

They, whoever they were, had killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just two months earlier. And the cities had burned in grief and fury. And now they, whoever they were, had killed Bobby. Soon there would be the Chicago police riots at the Democratic convention, riots that would follow Kennedy's death as inevitably as those that followed King's.

The world had gone mad.

Certainly, it was quite a strange world. In the asylum that was the college campus, those who still believed in the democratic process had split over Clean Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy.

McCarthy, the poet politician, had used the war to bring down Lyndon Johnson. With Johnson out of the race, Kennedy -- heir to the Kennedy magic -- joined the fray. But it was a different magic. He was the tough, ruthless, hard Kennedy who had come clean and, along the way, found his heart. The purists stuck with McCarthy; the pragmatists thought Kennedy might actually become president.

After winning California, Kennedy looked unstoppable in his bid to win the Democratic nomination. Until the bullet lodged in his brain laid him low.

In death, of course, Bobby became greater than in life. Much as his brother before him, Bobby, just 42, came to symbolize lost possibilities. And, worse, lost hope. This was a time when people still had heroes, when people believed that for every problem there was a solution.

For the baby boomers, who had grown up on John Kennedy optimism, the loss of the two Kennedys and of Martin Luther King changed everything. Bobby's death was the worst of it.

We had been too young to understand John Kennedy's assassination. And King's death could be explained away as the product of racism. Bobby Kennedy's death was inexplicable. When they told us Sirhan had acted in revenge for Israel's Six-Day War, we couldn't imagine how Middle East terrorism could be connected to us.

The days following Bobby's death were remarkable. We were mourning more than the man, of course.

They flew his body to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and people lined up for miles along Fifth Avenue. It was a five-hour wait, and many stood, in stunned silence, deep into the night. No one knew what to say.

The crowd there, as it would be along the train tracks from New York to Washington, was a mix of young people and blacks. Bobby Kennedy was probably the last white politician to whom so many black Americans gave not just a vote but also their hearts.

In Baltimore, 5,000 crowded the train tracks, singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as his body passed.

They put him down next to his brother at Arlington National Cemetery. And I can still hear Ted Kennedy's cracked and pained voice presenting the eulogy. He quoted Bobby as saying, "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."

That was 25 years ago, so long ago that many people actually believed a politician could speak these words and mean them.

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