By the time Robert Kennedy decided to run for President, in March of 1968, just days after Eugene McCarthy's great New Hampshire primary showing demonstrated President Lyndon Johnson's weakness and the real unpopularity of the Vietnam war, I was already neck-deep in McCarthy's campaign. I'd been involved since the summer before, in what, before McCarthy agreed to run, we called Dump Johnson. When Allard Lowenstein (himself assassinated in 2000), recruited us for it at the 1967 National Student Association (NSA) meeting, he'd say "You can't beat somebody (LBJ) with nobody." So he had worked very hard to get Bobby to run, but he refused.
It was Gene McCarthy who agreed to stand for all of us against the Johnson administration and the war. After NSA I organized the Smith campus. We were among the first students to go each weekend to New Hampshire to work for McCarthy and against the war. So when Kennedy announced, just days after our great New Hampshire triumph, that he would also run, we were devastated, and angry.
Over the months of campaigning though, I came to have enormous respect for Senator Kennedy and his campaign. There was no way to watch him without feeling the power of his connection with all kinds of Americans and his compassion, poetry and sense of justice. This moment, just as an inner city Indianapolis neighborhood learned of the death of Martin Luther King, is typical of him at his best:
By June the campaign was tense; such an important issue and the two Senators were running against one another as well as (and sometimes, it seemed, instead of) the war. Kennedy won Indiana. McCarthy won Oregon. We moved south to Los Angeles(one of many places I saw for the first time from a campaign bus) criss-crossing the state from Chico to San Francisco and back to LA. Just before the midnight after the primary, as June 4, 1968, election day, became June 5, we knew we'd lost, so we went to Senator's concession in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton and then back upstairs to mourn. We weren't even watching the rest of coverage. Suddenly, running through the halls of the staff floor of the hotel, one of McCarthy's closest advisors shouted "Turn on the TV! They've done it again!"
Stunned, we watched as the shooting video from the Ambassador Hotel kitchen ran over and over. Stunned, several of us climbed into a car (don't remember how we got one) along with a Smith professor of mine who had showed up to hang out with us, and drove around LA, using the aimless wandering as a distraction (didn't work, obviously.) In the morning, we flew back to Washington and collapsed at our hotel, only to be awakened just hours later. The Senator had died; we were to distribute Senator McCarthy's statement under the doors of all the reporters traveling with us. It was June 6, 1968. I was 22 years old.
Kennedy's assassination, just five years after that of his brotherJohn and two months after the death of Dr. King, devastated the nation once again. Almost catatonic, I flew home to Pittsburgh. Because of an ancient taxi driver who got lost, I missed my first flight; they were just closing the doors when I arrived. As I tearfully begged them to let me board, I was so agitated that they threatened to have me arrested. Finally, somehow, I got home. I returned to Washington a week later, convinced that, between the assassinations of the Senator, and, earlier, of Dr. King, I'd seen the worst possible.
Of course, we would see much more. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was a trauma still very much with me, almost as a sense memory. Choking on tear gas, watching from the windows of the Hilton as my friends and colleagues were beaten, helping to set up a hospital on our floor which quickly filled with kids whose heads were bound in bloody bandages, and leading Senator McCarthy and his friend Robert Lowell, through the halls to greet the wounded, I made it until the last day. That day, as McCarthy stood on a bench addressing all the young people still in one piece and gathered in the park, a Secret Service guy grabbed me by the neck of my dress and pulled me away despite my credential and my pleas. I was done.
I left, and ended up on an airport bus where the only other passenger was Arthur Miller. I was beyond awe by that time and asked if I could sit with him; I just didn't want to be alone. As we talked, I told him that I thought of Richard Nixon as Willy Loman. "No," he said, "Hubert Humphrey is Willy Loman." Somehow, that observation from a man I so admired, has become a landmark. After Chicago I went to work for CBS News and, until a few years ago I remained a journalist, applying my ideals to objective reporting, set apart, protecting my feelings under a cloak of professionalism. I didn't return to Chicago until I had to cover a Presidential primary debate there in 1984. I got sweaty palms around large groups of policemen for years; almost panicked near the police line at the dress rehearsal for the Nixon Inauguration, which I helped CBS News to cover. Never forgot. Still haven't forgotten -- not any of it.
None of it was as bad as what soldiers in Vietnam faced every day and I don't claim that it was. But the whole of it, from the war to the death of Dr. King to the death of Robert Kennedy to the riots in Chicago -- it was a lot. It changed me. It changed my husband, who had worked for Bobby and who was on his way to LA for the victory celebration when he heard the news. Unable to do anything else, he turned around, went home, left for Europe with a backpack within a week and still can't look at the footage of that night.
We in this country talk far too much about the death of innocence but for me, the patriotic teenager who chose to "work within the system" to help end the war, as for so many others, this really was a loss of innocence. I've never lost my love for my country; I wasn't one of those who didn't vote for Humphrey, or didn't vote at all, and thus brought us Richard Nixon. And I'm still so happy for Barack Obama's younger supporters who have a chance to know what believing in a candidate worthy of that belief feels like. But all that craziness and violence and loss leaves an impact. I believe that my (and my husband's) choice of a more observant Jewish life, years later, is a reaction to what we lost in 1968, and I sometimes think one reason I began this blog was to have a place to think it all through. I'm shocked that I began this post as an anniversary remembrance of a sad day and ended someplace else -- which is a reflection of my life's path from then until now and, I suppose, of having lived through those sad, terrible times.