Sunday, May 25, 2008

The persistence of memory

I'm not at all a fan of Hillary Clinton, but I know what she meant about Bobby Kennedy and June. It was easy to remember that Bobby wrapped up the California Primary in June, because his assassination is indelibly etched in our minds, and it was June.

It was early June, because I was home, in that niche between the end of classes and the beginning of, in my case, summer school. Another student might have been taking a little time before reporting to a summer job, or might remember being new on the job when the news came.

For my part, I was up early to do some fishing. I'd brought a transistor radio down to the dock, because you could get radio back in the woods that early in the morning. The dock was across the road and down a hill from our house. I got down there and got set up and then turned on the radio and heard the news. It was probably 6 a.m., so it was 3 a.m. in California and not so many hours after the shooting. I fished for a little while, listening to the coverage, but then I wrapped it up and went back up the hill. My parents were up and had also heard the news.

I wasn't a big Bobby Kennedy fan. I had done a little work for McCarthy, working the phones downtown one afternoon, but politics wasn't really my thing. My opinion about Bobby was that he was an opportunist and that he wasn't likely to bring the war to the kind of immediate end that a lot of people felt he would. On the other hand, I realized he was more electable than McCarthy, and so, however imperfect, he was the chance to turn the machine around.

That is, he had been.

Which is to say, I was not a fanatical follower; barely a follower at all. And yet if you asked me when the California Primary was held in 1968, I would say "June" without hesitation. In May, I was still in school. In July, I was back in summer school. In August, I was home again, and the streets of Chicago were in chaos.

Bobby died in June, of course. We all remember that, where "we all" is the set of people who were in college during the presidential campaign of 1968. I kind of doubt that the editorial board of the Argus-Leader consists entirely of people who were in college in 1968; I suspect that it contains at least a couple of people who weren't anywhere at all in 1968.

But I'm part of Hillary's "we all." I was just through with my freshman year at Notre Dame; Hillary had just wrapped up her junior year at Wellesley and was bound for the "Wellesley in Washington" summer program, and from there to the Republican Convention as a Rockefeller supporter. She would turn voting age less than two weeks before the election.

So I understand what she meant, and it wasn't about assassination. It was nonsensical, but it wasn't about assassination. It was simply a claim that primaries have gone into June before. Well, yes, they have, but Bobby had only entered the race March 16, two weeks before LBJ announced that he would not seek a second term.

I had to look that up.

I remember when LBJ made his speech, though, because it was the night before April Fool's Day, and some jokes were made about that.

And I remember when Martin Luther King was shot, because it was less than a week after LBJ's speech. So it was early April.

If LBJ hadn't spoken just before April Fool's Day, however, I wouldn't be able to pin it down like that. If, for instance, he had spoken just before Easter, I might remember that he spoke before Easter and MLK died a few days later, but then I'd have to look up when Easter fell in 1968.

But now comes the interesting part about memories and dates and chronologies and timelines:

The picture above is of Bobby speaking at Notre Dame. He came through town as part of his campaign in the Indiana Primary, and he attracted quite a crowd, more, I think, because he was a Kennedy than for his politics.

My memory of the day was that I was towards the back of the crowd as Bobby spoke, but when he started taking questions, a familiar hand popped up at the front. Familiar because it was black and because it was well above the rest of the hands.

It was Sid Catlett, a friend of mine who played on the basketball team and was gaining a reputation as a character. When Bobby had a chance to call on an African-American student, he took it, and so Sid unfolded his gangly frame like a carpenter's rule, stood up to his full six-eight height and asked, in an innocent tone, if it were true that they were planning to raise the maximum height for the draft.

There was a momentary, stunned pause while Bobby looked back at Sid, and then the place erupted in laughter and Bobby said, "I don't think you need to worry about it." The rest of the speech, as best I recall, was kind of wonkish, but he was a good public speaker and, as speeches go, he did all right.

So Bobby finished his speech and took off and that was my memory of Bobby Kennedy on campus. And I was going to say that I remember him coming to campus but all I remember was that we were all on campus -- I had no memory of the date or even the month. I'd have to find out when the Indiana Primary was if I were going to pin it down.

When I went digging around for a photo for this blog, however, I came across the specific date: April 4.

He appeared at Notre Dame in the late morning, then went down to Muncie for an appearance at Ball State, and then flew to Indianapolis. On his way to the airport, he was told of Martin Luther King's assassination; on his arrival, he was told Dr. King was dead, and he gave a memorable speech that night to the crowd that is credited with keeping Indianapolis from burning when the rest of the nation was in chaos.

Until this evening, I did not realize I had seen him that day. I remember very well being in an auditorium that night: It was the Sophomore Literary Festival and I was sitting in the balcony when, just before the speaker was introduced, the announcement was made. If you ask me about the day Dr. King was shot, that's what I remember. Nothing about what I did that morning, just where I was when I heard the news.

However, Hillary is right: Because I was a college kid and had the touchstone of hearing the news at home rather than on campus, I remember that Bobby died in June.

After a tough 10 weeks of campaigning. If he'd entered the New Hampshire Primary, it would have been 12 tough weeks. Hillary forgot that part.

See, none of us have perfect memories.


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

As someone who can't think on my feet, i really felt for Hil, who's generally pretty sharp. This nomination process must be fatiguing. If i were, God forbid, campaigning, RFK's death is not an event i'd want to call up in anybody's mind, even for a perfectly understandable associative reason. But i was glad to read that Bobby Jr. defended her on this.

1968 was one dark spring and summer. I was just old enough to have am early-teenage mystical feeling about it. JFK's assassination had really punched a hole in my nice suburban-kid world, and King's compunded that. Now here was a potential RFK presidency. It felt like it would be a kind of righting of an old wrong. Hey, i was 14. 8~)

A lot of memories are what i call snapshot memories. My head's full of them, like a boxful of photos, each clear, but non sequentially tossed into the box. Connecting them can be an amazing exercise.

uncle jed said...

I'm not conspiracy-theory enough to think she was trying to make anything happen. I do, however, think that people are most genuine and unaffected in times of fatigue and stress. That's the arguement for torture, for extended interrogation sessions, and for slow dancing to Stairway to Heaven...

Tired and stressed doesn't make you lie, however. She's thinking about it, so it came out. The sad part is she would probably get the nomination in that circumstance whether she was in the race or out.

I just pray Obama is careful if he heads to Bosnia...