As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 18, 2020.
The first presidential campaign that I remember dates back to 1968. As a second grader, I didn’t have a clue about politics, but I did sense that my father loved Bobby Kennedy.
The New York senator’s late run for the Democratic nomination had caused a stir. In cities across the country, he attracted crowds like a rock star, and I thought Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art portrait of him on the cover of Time magazine, which I saw on Dad’s night table, was cool.
But on a Wednesday morning in early June, when I turned on the TV before getting ready for school, I knew something was wrong. Instead of the familiar opening to “Gilligan’s Island” – “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip” – a black-and-white video of a woman in tears holding a handkerchief to her mouth flickered on the screen. The somber voice of a newscaster told me why.
I ran upstairs to my parents’ bedroom.
“Dad,” I said in the open doorway. “Bobby Kennedy was shot.”
After I repeated myself, a bit louder the second time, my father sprang from his side of the bed. “No, he wasn’t!” he said in a voice I had never heard before. Rushing past me in only his boxers, he bolted down the carpeted stairs.
Years after the assassination, I would come to learn why Dad loved Bobby Kennedy. There were the shared Irish Catholic roots, of course, and the causes RFK championed, including his embrace of the civil rights movement. As assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University, my father had spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.
But of equal importance to Dad was Kennedy’s eloquence. Of the many notes my father wrote to me, more than one included RFK’s famous paraphrase of a line from a George Bernard Shaw play: “Some people see things as they are and say, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?”
After Kennedy’s death, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination, only to be defeated in November by Richard Nixon. But my most vivid memory from 1968 is of that fateful morning in June. I hear my father’s anguished voice and see his shirtless body and, most of all, sense the vulnerability that comes with caring deeply for something or someone you believe in.
Dad would have given five stars to “Surviving Autocracy,” Masha Gessen’s sobering account of the Trump presidency. The book closes with lines from a Langston Hughes poem, which imagines not an America that once was, but one that can be:
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
I can hear my father: “Now that would be great!”
A friend of mine, Guatemalan by birth, recently became a US citizen. When I spoke with her earlier this month, we touched on familiar topics – life during the pandemic, her children’s return to school, the unhinged presidential debate.
“We’ll see what happens on Election Day,” Lilian said. When she told me she would be voting for the first time, her voice conveyed excitement and gratitude for a civic right that I have always taken for granted.
Were my father here, I suspect he’d share another Kennedy quote with me, one that is pertinent in an America where only 58% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election: “Elections remind us not only of the rights but the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.”
Never has living up to those responsibilities seemed so important.