Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a sermon by Rabbi Sam Gordon from the summer of 2008. It is particularly fitting now that Election Day in the United States is near
I graduated from high school on June 6, 1968. I had gone to an all-boys boarding school about 35 miles from Pittsburgh where I grew up. It was the tradition of the school that on the night before graduation there would be a senior’s banquet at which parents and family would attend, and then the seniors were let out of campus for the night, expected to return in the morning for graduation exercises. It was an incredibly stupid and disastrous policy that in two more years would result in the death of two graduating seniors. But we in my class were lucky somehow. So I found myself at 3 a.m. in a car with some of my friends driving back to campus from a night in Pittsburgh. The radio was playing, and the awful, terrible news came on. Senator Robert Kennedy had been shot in a Los Angeles hotel.
The world changed that night. The Kennedy assassination, as the Martin Luther King assassination only two months before, was a truly traumatic event in our nation, and for many years it was as if we were living through a collective post traumatic stress syndrome. After Bobby Kennedy’s death everything was different. The history of our country reflected that shock.
Hubert Humphrey, probably one of the finest public figures in America, was defeated by Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War continued, followed by the invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, and then Watergate. For many of us who were part of the antiwar movement, our culture was defined by the generation gap. American political life and discourse was filled with anger, violence, despair, and disillusion.
We came to distrust authority, institutions, and leadership. We acted like scorned lovers afraid to ever love again. We were wary of falling into the trap of once again hoping for a political savior who would be selfless, devoted, and charismatic not for personal gain but for the good of us all.
There is a genre of literature that I am somewhat fond of. It might be called non-historical fiction. There are a number of examples of these “what if” novels. If the South had won the Civil War, If Germany had defeated the Allies, If the American Revolution had failed. Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America. Michael Chabon wrote The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. There is the much older example of Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here. My favorite one was James Thurber’s parody: If Grant Had Been Drunk at Appomattox.
But try to imagine a different reality of what might have been had Bobby Kennedy lived. For just a moment think about how life would have changed. It is difficult to get our minds around it, but is there any doubt that the world would be a radically different place today? It’s hard to think of the many ramifications, but I am sure the years following 1968 would not have been the same. I wonder what college would have been like had our energies been turned to shared hopes and idealism, rather than distrust, anger, and social upheaval (Not that it was all bad. Some of us flourished in that upheaval.).
But I think that many of us were experiencing profound grief without being able to name it. Bobby Kennedy was the political Pied Piper of our youth. He inspired us and excited us. He was young. Nixon was old.
In 1966, speaking in South Africa, here is how he defined youth: He said youth is “not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.” He embodied that youth and spoke to those of us of that generation. Ted Kennedy, in his heartbreaking eulogy for his brother, quoted Bobby in saying, "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."
Here we are, 40 years later. In the Book of Numbers the Children of Israel are wandering in the Sinai desert. It is in the Book of Numbers that they will be forced to continue wandering for 40 years. The generation that remembered slavery had to die off. They needed to be replaced by a new generation that could appreciate new promise and potential. There is something important about 40 years – it is an entire generation. For the generation of former slaves, the Promised Land was out of reach, even for Moses. Only a new generation who had forgotten the lashing of the whips of slavery could enter the Land of Milk and Honey. A new generation had to be born and grow to adulthood.
It has been 40 years since the turmoil of 1968, and then there was the nomination of Barack Obama to be the Democratic Party nominee for President. Let me make it clear. I will say this over and over again between now and November. Some will not hear it, and others will think they hear me say things I will not say. But I will not now or ever endorse a candidate from the pulpit. I will never write congregants a letter or use my newsletter column to promote a candidate for any office. I will, however, urge all of you to vote and be involved. I will urge all of you to judge the candidates on their records and statements and not on innuendoes, rumors and lies. But I will not endorse.
Yet, having said that, Obama’s nomination was, for some people, the end of the 40 years in the desert and wilderness. This is not an endorsement. It is a commentary on a remarkable moment in history. Something extraordinary happened in that Minnesota arena. And it was difficult not to think of Robert F. Kennedy 40 years before.
About four years ago Patty and I happened to be invited to a benefit for Barack Obama in his Senate campaign. It was at the home of Sheila and Chris Kennedy in Kenilworth (Editor’s Note: Chris Kennedy is a son of Robert Kennedy), and I need to confess that I found myself with my friend Fr. John Costello wandering around the first floor living room, sitting room, and dining room. There were all the family photos in their silver frames, mostly photos in black and white. It was heartbreaking. A tear was caught in my throat. Here were the family pictures of Bobby Kennedy, full of life with his young children, playing, laughing, some posed others informal. These were pictures of a seemingly perfect family with a vibrant young father surrounded by children who knew only unconditional love. And it was a family that belonged to all of us, frozen in idealized memory. I was inside the house, struck by the symbolism of the Kennedy family history, while outside in the backyard Barrack Obama was talking about the future.
This country has come a long way, and it has a long way still to go. The death of Martin Luther King resulted in the searing of our cities, Chicago especially. Bobby Kennedy’s death was followed by the Chicago convention riots. There were the battles of Richard J. Daley and the youth. There was an extraordinary anger and violence between the black community and the white establishment. Much of it happened here. So perhaps some of the healing of 1968 is taking place here as well. That might be part of the pride we have in Barack Obama and why this city understands him so well.
There are, of course, many other ties to 1968 and all that it represented. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ted Kennedy in his great struggle for health, and it was one more sign of the connection that Barack took Ted Kennedy’s place in the commencement address at Wesleyan a week ago. The mantle is being passed, but it is not just between the Kennedys and the Obamas. This is the passing on of leadership to a new generation. The truth is, for anyone here my age or older, we remain part of the past 40 years.
Two weeks ago our family celebrated Shira’s graduation from Barnard, and everyone there talked about the anniversary of 1968 and the student takeover of Columbia. Perhaps you remember the iconic picture of student radicals sprawled out on the lap of Alma Mater, the statue on the steps of Columbia library. But on that day two weeks ago, we were blessed with a peaceful, bucolic day of graduation ceremonies beneath the raised arms of that same statue.
This is now a new generation, 40 years later. Whether Obama wins or McCain, whether it is a Democrat or Republican Congress, we know that the baton is being passed. The coincidences will continue. Barack Obama accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party on the 45th anniversary of King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Yet he will speak of the future. His candidacy has been described as post-racial, post-divisive. He is a candidate who was a child during Vietnam. There are newly registered voters who know the ’60s only because of high school classes taught by nostalgic 58-year-old teachers.
This truly is a moment of history. It was unimaginable 40 years ago. Yes, we have a long way to go. But this is a new America. Bobby Kennedy’s death put an end to many of our dreams, but Tuesday night was thrilling for many of us because we saw some of those dreams come to fruition. Bobby’s dream did not die.
He dreamed of things that never were, and said why not?
Why not indeed.