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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Touched

Thirty-eight years ago this month, I began my political activism handing out fliers urging registered Democrats to vote for Bobby Kennedy in the Ohio primary. As a reward for our volunteer efforts, my parents and I were told to be at the corner of Broad St. and Bryant Ave. at 8:30 that night where RFK would come by and personally thank us.

The neighborhood surrounding Broad and Bryant wasn’t the seediest in Columbus, but it was a predominantly black area besieged by the occasional riot during the 1960s–an odd place for a patrician politician who, as we later learned, had been receiving death threats ever since he sought the presidency.

So there I stood on that corner with a pinwheel (remember those?) in my hand saying, “Vote for Robert Kennedy.” Despite the dark and the cold, everyone was sure that the Senator would show up at least somewhere close to on time. But 8:30 turned into 9:30, with no sign of RFK anywhere.

Somebody finally decided to call Kennedy. The volunteer eventually got through to a senior campaign staffer who denied that any such appearance had been scheduled. Once we heard that, we were ready to go home. Nevertheless, somebody else thought to call again. This time the Kennedy camp responded, “We’ll think about it”

It was like that all night. We would get calls saying that Bobby wouldn’t come, followed by calls that he might be there. The crowd got pretty disgusted with the big tease. My parents decided to leave several times, but still wound up staying.

At 12:30am, a red convertible pulled up to the corner. Flanked in the backseat between two burly bodyguards sat the former Attorney General. The guy riding shotgun stepped out of the car and helped the Senator to his feet. We mobbed the poor guy before the bodyguards had a chance to surround him, but Kennedy didn’t seem to mind. Smiling broadly, he thanked us all for coming and shook as many hands as he could grab.

Before I knew it, I was standing right in front of him. He looked down at me and chuckled before shaking my hand too. He had a strange look on his face, one I had never seen on a grown-up before. At the time, I didn’t know what that look meant. Of course now, some thirty-six years later, I recognize the look all too well for I’ve seen it in numerous people.

Within the next six weeks, both Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be assassinated, allegedly by crazed lone gunmen who killed for, as Dr. Melanson put it, “muddled personal reasons.” The deaths of King and Kennedy outraged everyone in my family, especially the adults who suspected a deeper conspiracy behind the events almost immediately after they occurred.

I felt saddened by Dr. King’s murder, obviously. I knew of him at the time, but only as someone on the news, an abstract personality like so many others one sees on television. Kennedy’s death, however, infuriated me, for Bobby was no abstraction to me. I saw him. He saw me. He physically touched me. He became one of the thousands of people I have encountered in this life. For me, there will always be a reality to Kennedy that Dr, King, an iconic figure, will never have.

Compared to his brother’s assassination, Bobby’s has received much shorter shrift. Because I took his death personally, I have given, over the years, much more attention to the RFK assassination than I have the JFK assassination. In this second killing, there is much to ponder, and many lessons to be learned. Still, that cold night on Broad and Bryant taught me two things.

Lesson number one: Bobby Kennedy got ratfucked.

‘Ratfucking’ is the actual spy terminology for a domestic political op developed on the campus of Miami University in the mid-1960s. The purpose is to discredit a political candidate by telling supporters that they will appear at such-and-such a place. Problem is, nobody tells the candidate or his staff about the event. When he doesn’t show, people get upset, and start badmouthing the aspirant. Word of mouth doesn’t necessarily change votes, but it does lessen voter enthusiasm.

In 2004, voters living in predominately black Columbus neighborhoods, regardless of race, witnessed more systematic efforts to dampen their enthusiasm for participating in the democratic process: faulty voting machines, incorrect and confusing information about polling stations, long lines, threats by police and employers, and so forth. Apparently, the only things that change over the years are methods.

Lesson number two: Bobby Kennedy was stoned.

The glassy look in his eyes would become familiar to me in my teen years. Although my parents, and my older cousin recognized his condition immediately in 1968, it took awhile for the light to dawn on me.

Obviously, it’s not good form for a presidential candidate to appear intoxicated in public. But as the years went by, I began to appreciate and respect RFK even more for thinking that his supporters were important enough to see no matter his condition. I began to see RFK as a great leader not because he was "above" us, but rather he was one of us.

I don’t expect my elected officials to be perfect. But politicians who consider the citizens of their country to be the true source of their authority? Those, I’ll follow anywhere.

4 Comments:

Blogger Johnny said...

Wow, Bobby a hophead too. Who was his dealer, Judith Exner?

12:33 PM  
Blogger X. Dell said...

Beats me. I wasn't buying in '68.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Suki said...

Later on, ratfucking had to do with redistricting based on race:
http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?031208fa_fact

Another conspiracy.

3:58 PM  
Blogger X. Dell said...

Actually, you're right. The meaning of the term probably will change because of the project covered in the Jeffery Tobin piece: Operation Ratfuck (which has to do with gerrymandering).

I wonder if the etymology of the term, as used in that sense, has anything to do with Miami, or whether it came from the word's non-technical meaning.

Something else to add to the backburner.

7:59 PM  

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