It was 40 years ago today…it’s hard not to follow that phrase with Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, so reflexively does it pop into my head. It’s as if the two sides of the Sixties live together inside me: political assassination alongside joyful music.
With that music most likely playing in the background, I sat in my three-year-old son’s room on this day and methodically went through his toy box, removing every gun, holster and water pistol. The poor little guy used to sit on a log in the woods behind our backyard in his cowboy hat contentedly playing with his gun until I decided this was something I could do to stop contributing to a violent culture. A lot of people laughed at me, and in retrospect it seems a pretty feeble gesture—but like everyone else I felt impotent, and throwing out toy guns was concrete action.
A few years before that, I’d been on Fifth Avenue in New York when Bobby, campaigning for Senator, came riding by in his motorcade with presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. I jumped up with outstretched hand, and he shook it, smiling and making eye contact. In my mind’s eye I can still see him standing up in the open-roofed car, grinning, unsheltered, defying his family history.
Excerpts from a new documentary, RFK Must Die were shown today on Democracy Now. In it, the brother of Sirhan B. Sirhan, RFK’s alleged killer, is interviewed. He says that when he and his mother visited his brother in jail, he claimed that he’d blacked out and had absolutely no memory of shooting Kennedy. To this day, the brother said, Sirhan doesn’t remember a thing.
That doesn’t surprise me. It fits in with the school of conspiracy theories that claims assassins like Sirhan, and Dennis Sweeney (NY Representative Allard K. Lowenstein’s killer) and Mark David Chapman (John Lennon’s) were programmed to kill their targets, maybe even by chip implant as in the film The Manchurian Candidate. You don’t have to be a conspiracy nut or overly paranoid to entertain this notion: just read some of the books that compare the killers’ M.O.s and other circumstances of political assassinations in the United States. (I recommend Who Shot John Lennon? For information about RFK, read Nemesis by Peter Evans, who spent ten years researching the book, and unearthed evidence to support Sirhan’s contention that he was hypnotized.
It seems like the more liberal or radical the victim, the more likely the murder was politically motivated. Even though Robert Kennedy had, as Attorney General, approved the wire-tapping of Martin Luther King and initially supported the Vietnam War, by the time of his death he’d done a 360-degree about-face. He traveled through the South, stopping to visit poor black families in two-room wooden shacks. He befriended and demonstrated with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. He turned against the war. His speeches were eloquent, honest, critical of governmental policies, and hopeful. I suppose the way I felt about Kennedy is how young people today feel about Barack Obama.
I know I’m not the only person my age who still goes around wondering What if…? What if RFK had lived and won the Presidency? For that matter, what if JFK hadn’t been assassinated? In either case, we’d be living in a much different world today. Then again, any of a hundred other events could have altered the political landscape.
This What if…? syndrome has me thinking: human beings have probably always, since time immemorial, wondered as they aged about their life choices, asking, What if I’d done such and such instead of so and so? But my generation just might be the only one in history to wonder What if…? on a vast global and historical scale.
It’s like we always said: The Personal is Political.