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On Eve of California Primary, Lessons From Robert Kennedy's Assassination

4 years ago
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On Tuesday, California's voters will go to the polls to choose their November standard-bearer for governor, an open Senate seat, and a host of other races. It's a celebration of democracy, as all elections are, but for the past four decades June primaries in the Golden State have also been sad and sobering reminders of the harm that human beings do to each other in the name of politics and sectarianism.
This day, 42 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy was shot after winning the California presidential primary. He died the following day, June 6, 1968, just before 2 a.m. My job was to tell people about it.
Each year, usually around Christmas time, I write one column expounding on my love of newspapers. This year, perhaps because the California primaries are so compelling, I'm going to do it early. In 1968, I was a 14-year-old paperboy the same age as Homer McCauley, the sensitive World War II-era Western Union messenger of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy. I had read that book -- Saroyan, one of California's greatest writers, was taught in school at the time -- and had wondered how Homer McCauley had managed to climb on his bicycle and deliver death notices to the Gold Star mothers in the San Joaquin Valley without crying.
I was about to find out.
Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, 1968As a student at Joaquin Miller Junior High School in Sacramento, I delivered the San Francisco Chronicle, which was the preferred newspaper of many politically aware Northern Californians. My route was big: 90 papers delivered seven days-a-week on a bicycle stripped down for speed and lightness: my daily trip was about five miles.
Any American even slightly older than I am will always remember the national tragedy and turmoil of 1968, and the passions surrounding that year's presidential campaign.
On March 12, anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy gave President Johnson a scare in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire and LBJ subsequently announced he would not seek re-election. Four days later Robert Kennedy entered the race. A month after that, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, a debilitating blow that seemed to break McCarthy's stride, if not his spirit. I know it sapped mine. By the time of the June primary in California, the Democratic presidential contest had come down to a grinding contest between Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. I had first been a Humphrey kid, out of loyalty to LBJ, then switched to McCarthy after meeting him at Sacramento Municipal airport. But 14-year-olds can be fickle. After Robert F. Kennedy ushered in June of 1968 with a campaign swing through Sacramento and the Central Valley, I switched affections again, to RFK. It was a short-lived love affair.
Like most Californians who had to get up early for school or work, I watched the election returns the night of June 4, saw that Bobby had won, and went to bed relatively early, as a paperboy will do when his alarm is set every morning at 5:45 a.m.
That morning, I didn't sleep that late, however. At 4:30 in the morning, my mother came into my room, which was a first, and told me gently to get up and deliver the papers. I told her that they didn't have to be delivered this early, and she replied that today, they did. I should know, she added, that Bobby Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles. It had happened just after midnight, she said, meaning that the out-of-town editions of the San Francisco Chronicle were not going to have the news that people needed to know: namely, that less than five years after his brother the president had been assassinated, RFK had also been wounded, and was probably going to die.
"Where's dad?" I asked. The answer was that my father, a newspaperman, was still at work.
"He stayed there all night," my mother told me. "But he called with the latest bulletin. He told me to write this down for you."
Fighting back tears, my mother handed her oldest son a three-by-five card with the grim news from L.A. I was to read the latest news about RFK to my customers as I delivered their paper.
"No one will be awake at this hour." I protested.
"Yes, they will," she replied softly. "And they'll want to know what happened."
She was right. At every other house, it seemed, in these pre-cable, pre-Internet days, a light was on, and through the windows I could see people at their kitchen tables, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, some with their face in their hands. At many houses, the resident -- usually the woman of the house -- came outside to meet their paperboy, who dutifully recited the information on his little card. Sometimes the women would start crying. Several of them hugged me in their grief.
My paper route usually took an hour. That morning, it took three. It's far too melodramatic to say that the kid who delivered those papers began his rounds as a boy and finished them as a man, but I will say that when I was done delivering those papers, I had acquired an abiding interest in the presidency, and a searing appreciation for the power of the news. I still retain those dual passions, and over the years have also formed some judgments about the meaning of those horrifying events of 1968.
One of them is that the words we use in politics and the press matter.
In 1944, as Allied bombers razed German cities, George Orwell, who was then (among other things) a newspaper columnist, received a letter from a reader who was troubled by the indiscriminate nature of the lethal ordnance being rained on the German people by British and American pilots. Although he said he realized "the Hun (has) got to be beaten," the writer expressed his misgivings over civilian casualties suffered in places like Dresden and Hamburg. Replied Orwell in his newspaper column: "It seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them 'Huns.'"
Perhaps that's hyperbole, but Orwell's point was that it's the name-calling and demonization that make the bombing possible. It's a lesson for our own times as well as the 1960s. It's a lesson for any era, as the sacrifice of the Kennedy family attests. The anger and hatred expressed in our politics is troubling, and not only because it's unpleasant. World history – our own history – has shown it can be dangerous. That's one reason why Politics Daily, a newspaper for a digital age, has embraced the concept of the "civilogue," a self-explanatory term coined by our colleague Jeffrey Weiss, who lives in Dallas, a city that came for a time to be associated with the murder of a president.
Yoda, the sage and diminutive Jedi master in the movie Star Wars , a cultural icon of the 1980s, put it this way: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
Those words were not actually written by a cute little intergalactic creature, of course. They were written by George Lucas, who, like Homer McCauley grew up in the Central Valley and who was living in Los Angeles that fateful June of 1968 when hate and fear seemed to overwhelm the better angels of our natures.

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