Saturday, November 25, 2006

Remembering Bobby

I was working on the night copy desk at the Pasadena Independent on June 4, 1968. And my job was to tear news stories off the AP and UPI teletype machines which utilized a system of bells to denote items of more than usual interest. A three-bell story would be rare, but this evening the bells started and they never seemed to stop. Bobby Kennedy had been shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel just after delivering a speech celebrating his victory as the Democratic nominee for president in the California primary election. He died from his wounds a day later.

I didn't vote for Kennedy. He had only entered the race a few months earlier, shortly before President Johnson, defeated by the quagmire in Vietnam, had announced that he would not seek reelection. My choice for president had been the radical challenger from the left, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a scholar and a poet. But after Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and Nixon's defeat of Hubert Humphrey, I found myself drawn to the strong peace and social justice positions he took late in his political career. And for someone of my generation, there is no escaping the Camelot feel of the Kennedy dynasty.

These memories resurfaced last night while watching Emelio Estevez's fine film, "Bobby," which follows the stories of 22 people in the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was shot. Interlaced with footage from Kennedy's life and last political campaign, "Bobby" evokes a time of innocence hope in the late 1960s, before "the music died," as Don McLean puts it in his anthem, "American Pie." There are echoes, obviously intentional, of the times we are in today, the quagmire in Iraq. But there are no leaders now of the caliber of Bobby and Jack Kennedy, who put the interests of the poor and disenfranchised before that of the businessmen. And there is little hope. Politicans sell out to corporate interests, preachers battle abortion rather than restrictions on civil rights, and half of the voters stay home.

There are some wonderful performances in Estevez's "Bobby." Aging superstars Sharon Stone and Demi Moore are so convincing in their roles as a hotel hair stylist and alcoholic lounge singer that you forget their cinematic pasts. Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte, whose accomplishments should be celebrated from the rooftops, play a couple of retired hotel employees who ruminate on the history of the Ambassador and the problems of aging. William Macy, the manager of the hotel, is Stone's adulterous husband who is having an affair with telephone operator Heather Graham. Lindsay Lohan is a young woman who marries Elijah Wood to prevent his going to Vietnam. Estevez, Moore's long-suffering husband in the film, has had a checkered career in movies and TV. He is the son of Martin Sheen who plays in the film a tourist with a fashion-obsessed Helen Hunt as his wife. "Bobby" is not an unflawed film. The drug scene with Ashton Kutcher, Moore's real husband, as hippie guru is a bit absurd. And the integration of the story with TV news footage and songs from the period sometimes seems forced. But Freddy Rodriguez as the bus boy who ends up with Kennedy's head in his lap is outstanding in the role.

The Kennedys were not perfect. Their father Joe financed their political careers with ill-gotten gains from a stock market career, and the sons supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and wars against communism in Vietnam and elsewhere. Bobby worked for the demogogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy ferreting out reds in government, and later made a name attacking racketeers like the union leader Jimmy Hoffa. But as attorney general under his brother and Johnson, Bobby developed a commitment for social justice that exceeded JFK's and one that was undoubtedly inspired by his understanding of Catholic social teaching. He was a friend to Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez, and after becoming a senator for New York he joined them in protest marches. He was probably the last politican truly beloved by the poor. Perhaps his inherited wealth insulated him from the need to cut deals and allowed him to see America as the moral leader of the world rather than its policeman.

1968 was a watershed year in world history. It began with the Prague Spring when Dubcek in Czechoslovakia promoted "socialism with a human face," only to be overthrown by the Soviet invasion in August. The Tet Offensive in January turned public opinion against the Vietnam War, and disgust deepened with revelations in March about the My Lai massacre. At the beginning of April King was assassinated in Memphis, and at the end antiwar students at Columbia shut down the university. That same week "Hair" opened on Broadway. May was a time of protest in Paris that almost toppled the French government. The day before Kennedy was shot, Valerie Solanas shot and wounded Andy Warhol. Also in June, Pope Paul VI published an eycyclical condemning birth control. And in July, Saddam Hussein took control of Iraq in a coup d'etat. At the Democratic National Convention in August, demonstrators clashed with police in the streets of Chicago, and the whole world watched it on TV. In October, students were massacred at a protest in Mexico City right before the beginning of the summer olympic games. Kennedy's widow Jackie married the Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis, and in November the Republicans under Nixon took back the White House. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 went into orbit around the moon.

That year I was 28 and lived in a faux Greene & Greene cottage in Pasadena with my wife and our two sons, one four and the other less than a year old. A new liquor store with a nautical theme, Trader Joe's, had just opened around the corner from our house. I rode my Yamaha motorcycle to my work at the newspaper, and we experimented with LSD and marijuana, read a new music paper called Rolling Stone, and listened to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which had been released the previous summer.

The assassinations of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King, as well as the war in Vietnam which continued to drag on, plunged this country into a prolonged depression, a extended time of bread and circuses, from which it has yet to recover. We miss you, Bobby.

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