I was riding in the car the other day, when my friend suddenly asked me: “There was this guy…he lived here in the 1970s and was elected to Congress…what is his name?” I laughed and replied that I had no idea. “Man, I don’t know. If it’s not a woman and it’s after 1920, count me out.”
I wasn’t always like this. When I started college, I could have told you anything about U.S. history. While I composed elaborate Founding Fathers fanfiction in my head, in a classic freshman move, I also attached a Suessical poem I’d written about the 1960 presidential election to the front of my research paper on Richard Nixon. The poem was called Little Dick & Younger Jack, and I’m 10% certain it was the difference between an A and an A- on that paper.
atop the highest mountain
little Dick did strive to be
where in his mind, so dark and sad,
only he could see
but from the deepest valley
all little Dick could see
was his sweet rival climbing high
where only one could be
for all he tried to do that year
and how fast he tried to climb
the younger man had money
and a haircut that looked fine…
The point is, I’m no longer the same historian I was in 2008. The generalist passed away, and I gained a much closer, more intimate and nuanced view of social movements and women’s history in the early decades of our country. The little facts floating around in my brain that could not be tied down with relation to my studies disappeared as my focus narrowed. Teapot Dome took a back seat to the development of female patriotism. So it goes.
Sometimes you go home to visit your parents and end up digging through your old closet. You find all these outfits and tiny shoes you could never wear again. You laugh, and you throw them in a bag to donate to Goodwill. But sometimes you find a little dress from the 90s that still fits over your head and could pass as a pretty fashionable shirt in 2016. Although I rarely lament my historical transition from generalist to specialist, what strikes me most unexpectedly are the outliers that continue to be dear to me, the things I put back in the closet to save for a rainy day. What does it mean that I still relish in the drama of Marbury v. Madison? Who still feels bad that Franklin Pierce’s 11-year-old son died right in front of his eyes? Why do I still cry when I think of Bobby Kennedy?
I’m no expert, but reading about the 60s, or watching a documentary, to me, feels a lot like following Game of Thrones. The world was in chaos; the country was divided; and everyone had their own idea of how best to fix it. There were manipulators, schemers, bullies, peacemakers, secret agents, and heroes. Leaders were taken out, it seems, in disproportionate rates. On June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy died in hospital from an assassins bullet. His rise was unexpectedly meteoric, and his fall was devastating. Five years after his brother’s assassination and only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., another hero of his generation had died. In his wake, vulture Richard Nixon finally seized the presidency.
Perhaps I feel Bobby Kennedy’s loss so strongly because 2016 feels like the cousin of 1968. A highly contested election with conventions that will most likely have unsavory results, institutional racism, a war on women. Our leaders’ present rhetoric on the specter of terrorism is shockingly parallel to Red Scare rhetoric of yore, and the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle has drastically altered politics. Not a career politician, Bobby Kennedy was not above confronting the establishment to shake things up where he saw injustice. Maybe he was the hero Gotham needed then. Maybe he is the hero Gotham needs now.
Or, perhaps I feel Bobby Kennedy’s loss so strongly, not for any political reason, but because of who he was–shy, introverted, youthful, passionate, overlooked and confused. Ignored by his father, he clung to his mother, but even she saw little potential in his poor grades and sullen attitude. He tripped over air and lacked the easy, debonair style of his siblings. He was sensitive and depressive and had absolutely zero game. (Jack actually stole Bobby’s girlfriend once while they were on a date.) It’s easy to relate to someone as painfully outcast as that. Baa baa, black sheep. Baa baa, Bobby.
That isn’t to say I’m blind to his flaws. He wasn’t always right as a policy maker and his religious zeal made him a conservative adolescent. Every time I read his life, I am consistently disappointed by his machismo and his initial reluctance towards the civil rights movement. When the author notes a homophobic comment he made towards someone he didn’t like, I cringe and consider abandoning interest. But, then, he’ll do something that makes my mind spin. He’ll see a child in pain and reevaluate a situation. He’ll tour a rundown community and realize the government has failed them in unforgivable ways. He’ll revise his hawkish reaction to instead counsel peace. He’ll wonder aloud why so few of the lawyers in the justice department are black. He’ll ask a journalist what their favorite flavor of ice cream is and share that his is chocolate. He’ll acknowledge that women are absolutely necessary to the election process or join a migrant worker strike and my heart will be all aflutter again.
As an adult, Kennedy was hard and masculine, but he was intuitive and emotional at his core. His ability to empathize was off the charts. Although he resisted at times, his moral compass was in full functioning order and usually won the day. But, for most of his life, he was the trumpet and scapegoat of his family. If Jack wanted something unsavory done, he could call on Bobby to do the dirty work. If someone criticized his father, no matter how his father had discounted him as a child, he would bristle and fight. It wasn’t until 1968 that Bobby Kennedy reluctantly edged into the spotlight left vacant and flickering after the death of his brother.
A good story has a beginning, sufficient rising action towards a climax, followed by enough falling action to lead you towards the end. Kennedy’s story started slowly and unremarkably as the neglected third son of ambitious parents. It continued slowly, as he consistently put his hopes and dreams aside for his family. He charged on after 1963, though directionless, and became his own man. In just a few short months, Bobby Kennedy, the shy, skulking boy from the background, found his voice just as the nation was ready to change its tune. It was a voice no one (not even himself) had heard before, but it rang loud and true and unafraid. “We need change,” it said. “Will you help me?” it asked, and the people of this country roared an overwhelming “yes.”
RFK is a giant, but he’s a giant what if. Would he have won the Democratic nomination in 1968? Possibly. Would he have won the election? Maybe not. But his sudden death allows us to speculate, allows us to imagine that climax, that falling action, and the eventual ending. He was a man of contradictions, who was constantly growing, constantly feeling. In such a short amount of time, he seemed to lift America’s hopes and present an optimistic future. Oh, the places he could have taken us…
So why do I still cry about Bobby Kennedy? Because he was a hero. Because he was human. Because he was afraid but he always did what was right in the end. His hands still shook when he spoke in public and he still struggled under the burden of his name, but his courage and determination are inspiring, his ability to escape his privilege and empathize with the working class is striking. As his funeral train sped through all the different landscapes of our beautiful nation, all the different people that make up that nation came out to mourn him. Overlooked as a child, hundreds of thousands of people now patiently waited by the tracks to say goodbye. That’s a powerful image, and I think it’s worth a few tears.
And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.