The day Bobby Kennedy died

June 6, 2008

The nation’s last charismatic political figure representing Hope was gunned down forty years ago today in Los Angeles. It was one week after I graduated from high school, and I was sleeping late. My summer job hadn’t begun. My brother David burst into my bedroom and woke me with the news.

At seventeen, politics interested me, and I was getting swept up in Bobby Mania. His impassioned anti-Vietnam War message had started eating away at the government propaganda I’d been force fed in civics class. But I was more drawn to his willingness to tell hard truths about our country. And I had succumbed to the strength he exuded. People felt it in his words. Some saw it in his eyes, including a Russian poet who described them as “two blue dots of will and anxiety.”

The assassinations of Bobby and Jack Kennedy are among the few tragic events forever tethered in memory to where I was and what I was doing upon learning the news.

Today I realized with a feeling close to shame that I have no inkling of receiving news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. I can’t blame racism, despite growing up in Florida. My father made sure his three sons believed, as he did, in equality for all. And King’s speeches and civil disobedience had resonated in our white household in Maitland, next to the all-black town of Eatonville. Integration of my segregated high school in Winter Park was uneventful, partly because most white students understood that our sports teams were about to get a lot better.

Why didn’t King’s murder stick with me? I may have been overly self-absorbed with the closing days of high school life. But the news no doubt devastated my black classmates, yet my memory is distressingly blank about their reaction.

Barack Obama, whom I’ve seen speak twice in Portland — once shaking his hand, has qualities of all three slain leaders. And he frightens the entrenched powers far more. I saw up close at both events the tension gripping the faces of Obama’s Secret Service protectors as their eyes scanned the crowds of well-wishers for the next Lee Harvey Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray.

I’m reading Mark Kurlansky‘s 1968: the Year That Rocked the World. He points out that Secret Service agents didn’t guard presidential candidates in those days. If they had, the hotel kitchen where Bobby Kennedy was shot would have been cleared of spectators before he passed through, encountering Sirhan Sirhan. Kurlansky also writes:

In 1968 hope ended in the late spring on a kitchen floor in California. After the killing of Robert Kennedy, novelist John Updike said that God may have withdrawn his blessing for America.

Kurlansky quotes from “Assassination Raga,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem written for Kennedy upon hearing of his killing: “There is no God but death.”

The fear that Obama is a prime target for history repeating itself invariably comes up in discussions among his supporters, me included. I’ve heard this admonishment: “Don’t even say it, or it will happen.”

What will the poets say if the unutterable strikes? Words will fail them.