THE MEMORIES flood back, of the exuberance of youth and the thrill of believing, if just for a moment, that you were making a difference. Caught up in the windstorm of 1968, captured by the excitement of events playing out far beyond the confines of my safe and secure East Boston neighborhood, drawn to the movements to end a war, advance civil rights, and shake off the smothering conformity of buttoned-down America, it was a thrilling moment, as Wordsworth wrote of another time: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
Too young to vote, I was nevertheless captured by the magic of living in a moment of transformative change, naive enough to believe that my generation would prevail in the battle for the future. Gene McCarthy was thought to be tilting at windmills until primary night in New Hampshire. His stunningly strong second-place finish in a small state primary made the impossible seem achievable.
Too young to understand nuance, too impatient to embrace complexity, too callow to see past the passions of the moment, I forgot what LBJ had meant to the civil rights movement and failed to grasp how lasting and transformative his domestic agenda would prove to be. He got little respect in 1968; it was all about the war, the conflict that represented the apotheosis of American hubris and misuse of power.
Bobby Kennedy’s decision to enter the presidential race appeared inevitable at that moment. McCarthy’s quixotic quest for the presidency couldn’t match the raw enthusiasm that Kennedy brought to the race. There’s never been a political leader quite like RFK. Like Whitman, he contained multitudes: at once tough, impatient, compassionate, impetuous, strategic, and sometimes reckless. He appealed to people viscerally.
RFK may actually have been less liberal than LBJ, but he was more radical. Johnson was a creature and a prisoner of the status quo, which was at the core of his great domestic policy successes and the reason why he was so hopelessly mired by the conflict in Vietnam. Kennedy came from the same status quo and, through the experience of grief and heartbreak, emerged as a wiser, more confident leader.
Bobby Kennedy was able to inspire in a unifying way. His message was transcendent: it was a call not simply for national unification but unity of purpose: to build a better society that was founded on essential attitudes of justice. In March of 1968, in a remarkable address, he spoke at the University of Kansas and made his mission clear: “I don’t want to win support by hiding the American condition in false hopes or illusions. I want us to find out the promise of the future, what we can accomplish here in the United States, what this country does stand for and what is expected of us in the years ahead. And I also want us to know and examine where we’ve gone wrong. And I want all of us, young and old, to have a chance to build a better country and change the direction of the United States of America.”
When you see the bust of Robert Kennedy behind President Biden in the Oval Office, you may imagine he is thinking occasionally of RFK’s remarks, which seems as apt today as they did in that turbulent year: “We confront our fellow citizen across impossible barriers of hostility and mistrust and, again, I don’t believe that we have to accept that. I don’t believe that it’s necessary in the United States of America. I think that we can work together – I don’t think that we have to shoot at each other, to beat each other, to curse each other and criticize each other, I think that we can do better in this country.”
And then Kennedy reminded us of the dangers of misplaced priorities
“Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage . . . It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts . . . the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Bobby Kennedy rallied a nation and appeared uniquely capable to harness the complex forces of a turbulent time, and direct them toward a better future. His work was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, and in that foul deed America’s future was redirected. Nixon barely won in 1968 against a politically wounded Hubert Humphrey. I doubt he would have prevailed against the more dynamic and politically independent Kennedy. If you believe, as I do, that RFK would have been elected president that year, then all of American political history changes dramatically: no Nixon or Watergate, no Jimmy Carter, no Ronald Reagan. The line from what some today believe was sensibly benign Reaganism (it was neither) to the rancid situational ethics of George H.W. Bush (remember Willie Horton?) to autocratic Trumpism is well defined. There’s speculation in this, I know, but some acts have profound and lasting consequences, and this was one such act.
The decision to parole RFK’s assassin rubs raw old wounds and brings fresh reminders of what was irretrievably lost. The ramifications reverberate through our history. Can there ever be atonement for such a deed?
RFK himself might have said, “Learn from it and let it go.” His message to America following Martin Luther King’s murder suggests that is how he had processed the killing of his own brother. On a cool spring evening in Indianapolis, he called for an end to division and retribution:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, . . . Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
The memories flood back, and the sense of lost opportunity, of a nation never fully recovered from the wrenching events of an annus horribilis. For many of us who lived through that experience and were scarred by it, this moment is a cause for reflection. What lessons have been learned?
Emerging from the pandemic, will we turn inward and double down on the social disparities that are the natural outcomes of widespread telecommuting? Emerging from the poisonous attitudes of Trumpism, will we allow misguided ideologues to disrupt our democratic norms? Will we capture the essential decency of Bobby Kennedy’s message and build a better society?
James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and serves on the board of TransitMatters.