Thursday, May 17, 2018

From 1968 to 2007, and then 2018: "RFK -- in the context of New Albany today?"

Thanks to NV for mentioning a piece about Robert F. Kennedy that I had forgotten writing. It was published here on April 29, 2007. Earlier this year, the local chain newspaper ran a solid remembrance of the Kennedy visit in late April, 1968

I've left my 11-year-old blog post intact, below, apart from making two or three small corrections.

Its relevance to me now lies in the political context of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson, the seemingly unassailable sitting president who won his full term in a landslide in 1964. Kennedy entered the race only after McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, and Johnson subsequently withdrew and accepted lame duck status. 

In short, applied locally, it means something far different to me now than in 2007. 

"But almost certainly the senator did see a clear and present danger emanating from the figure of the incumbent even if the sitting president was a member of the same party."

LBJ ... JMG? We'll see. The Green Mouse says there are rumblings, but now, back to April of 2007, and a time when local Democrats actually spoke to me.


RFK -- in the context of New Albany today?

At Friday’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an annual Democratic Party rite of spring, keynote speaker Daniel Kalef of Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center related an anecdote about a mid-1960’s automobile ride through Watts, with Muhammad Ali at the wheel of a convertible, and Robert F. Kennedy as the sole passenger.

In conversations with Kalef, Ali has noted that on this particular day it was not he who became the object of attention and adoration on the part of the crowds that inevitably gathered during the drive, a phenomenon to which Ali was well accustomed. 

Rather, it was RFK, the white, dynastic, complex and troubled politician, who the people in the predominately black neighborhood wanted to see up close.


Almost forty years on, there remains something profoundly moving – and utterly haunting -- about RFK’s impromptu speech in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination. He discarded prepared comments in favor of heartfelt words, the audio of which was replayed to those attending Friday’s dinner.

Near the end, in a reference inconceivable in the present age of mass deconstruction, when candidates for office routinely clear brush and dumb themselves down to the level of public ignorance perceived by their survey-driven handlers, RFK reached with complete sincerity to the classics to find words to express his sadness:

My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'

As an atheist, I might quibble with the final line, except that the emotion on display these many years later is too real to be ignored.

The Ali Center’s Kalef candidly admits that having been born in 1965, he remembers nothing of RFK beyond what he learned later in school, but NA Confidential’s senior editor is five years older, and can vaguely recall Kennedy’s visit to New Albany in 1968, an event described in loving detail by William Lohmeyer on Friday evening. 

My recollection is that of Kennedy waving from an auto that passed our vantage point on Main Street, near the Knights of Columbus.

Knowing my father’s aversion to crowds, and populist instincts that sometimes veered uncomfortably toward the right, it must have taken some degree of interest and respect for him to agree to making the trip down from Georgetown.

Just a few weeks later, after RFK was killed, my father and I were standing by the rusted oil drum that we used weekly to burn the trash. He was looking at the front page of the Courier-Journal, which bore a large photo of the slain candidate, and after scanning the article through for a final time, he tossed it atop the fire. 

I can see the face consumed by flames, and to this day associate the expanding ashes with my own fears and uncertainties as an eight-year old who was aware of societal turbulence and accompanying change, but not quite far enough along to make sense of it.

It is well documented that when Robert F. Kennedy decided to enter the presidential race in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership position was rapidly eroding as the escalating insanity of the Vietnam War actively subverted any hopes that LBJ’s “Great Society” might substantively emerge here at home in an America plagued by division and strife.

Kennedy said:

I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can.

LBJ’s unexpected withdrawal from public life came soon after, and Kennedy’s disclaimer (not to “oppose,” but to “propose”) might be read as deferential according to the prevailing rules of the game, but almost certainly the senator did see a clear and present danger emanating from the figure of the incumbent even if the sitting president was a member of the same party.

Speaking locally, NAC consistently has proposed new policies for the city of New Albany. For proof, look back at our archive of three years running, but get a big cup of coffee first, because it’s going to take you a while.

During the same time, we have opposed the men with names like Price, Coffey, Schmidt and Kochert, whose mantra might as well be, “Penny wise, future foolish.”

We will continue to propose what we believe to be the sensible new policies and trends, and to oppose the outmoded men who stand in their way, knowing that while progress may eventually bypass those bizarrely and often corrosively opposed to it, removal of the obstacles they embody can certainly assist the process of renewal and change that must come to the city if we are to survive.

Glancing around the room on Friday night, as Floyd County’s Democratic Party celebrated the life and legacy of RFK on the eve of an important primary election, I wondered how many seated at the Grand – many of whom are longtime friends and acquaintances – are willing to go further than pay temporary and polite lip service to the larger ideals being considered at the rostrum, and whether they genuinely can see that there are no practicing units of democracy, however small, that cannot benefit from the expansion of consciousness that accrues from absorbing bigger lessons like these and applying them to the everyday task of making the city a better place to live and work.

I’ve neither seen the movie “Bobby” nor read the consensus choice for best biography, whatever that is (with luck, both are on the agenda), and I understand that the final analysis of any human’s life and work is inordinately difficult and prone to differing interpretations.

Obviously, Robert F. Kennedy was not a perfect man, but just as obviously, none are. Perhaps because of these imperfections, we can learn about ourselves by reflecting on RFK’s life and the experiences of his time.

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