My Mixed Feelings About Bobby Kennedy

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It was a long time ago in another country. I think of it almost every year around this time.

I went to bed early in my apartment in New York on that night 32 years ago, and woke up at two in the morning. I turned on the television because I wanted to check the final returns from the Democratic primary in California. The screen came alive in the midst of a terrible dream: scenes of grainy mayhem, history in black and white — the shooting replayed, pop of gunfire, jostled turmoil, Bobby Kennedy quite still and glassy-eyed on the floor of the hotel pantry in Los Angeles.

Nineteen sixty-eight had been a ghastly year, and it was only half over. I got my private griefs mixed up with the public calamities. My 17-year-old brother Mike had died of cancer just as the Tet offensive began, the thing that turned the Vietnam war violently on its axis. Martin Luther King was shot down, and the cities went up in flames, and my best friend and college classmate, Travis Williams, who was black and going through his own turmoils, died in May, of a stroke in his mid-twenties. And now Bobby Kennedy was dead as well. It seemed to me a malignant year. I had driven around Indiana following Bobby's campaign during May, listening to the radio in a rental car. Disk jockeys played, over and over, the new hit: "What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?/Joltin' Joe has left and gone away/Hey hey hey...."

When I was a kid in Washington in the '50s, I played touch football on weekends with Bobby Kennedy at Georgetown Playground, a scruffy field at 34th and Q Streets. I was a neighborhood kid they picked up when they needed another player. Bobby always played quarterback, though that mattered less, since the Kennedys made their own rules and the line of scrimmage was merely the place the play started, and you could pass anywhere, in any direction. Assorted Kennedy children and dogs lined the sidelines, and there was always one in utero. Ethel Kennedy played nonetheless, hugely pregnant as she was, and once when she dropped a pass from Bobby, he chewed her out angrily, as if he really meant it. One Saturday, Byron "Whizzer" White, a college All-America who became Mr. Justice White in later years, took a lateral from Bobby and passed long to me, a perfect spiral the length of the field, the ball landing lightly, perfectly, in my outstretched hands as I ran full speed down the sideline. The play was so perfect that it had, even at the moment it occurred, a dreamlike quality.

For touch football, the game was fairly rough. One morning Bobby got into a vicious fistfight with a local teenager. The kid knew how to punch, hard; he and Bobby battered one another's faces until the fight ended, as I recall, in a surly, muttering draw. It seemed odd to me that a grown man would brawl like a juvenile delinquent in front of his children. But then Bobby was still in his twenties and something of a juvenile delinquent himself.

My father, who worked for Nelson Rockefeller in the '60s and '70s, knew and liked John Kennedy, but detested Bobby and referred to him, with uncharacteristic harshness, as "that little prick." A lot of people said something like that: "Ruthless" was the most common word they used. But later they said that tragedy had softened and deepened him. Both views may have been true, but with Bobby you risk falling into a sequence of clichés. I have become, over the years, agnostic and wary on the subject of Kennedys. I liked John Jr., and admire RFK Jr., who does great work trying to save the Hudson River.

I might as well be writing about the Civil War, or the Pleistocene. I have sometimes engaged, as others have, in counterfactual speculation — wondering what would have happened if Bobby Kennedy had lived. Would he have beaten out Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination in Chicago? Would he have defeated Richard Nixon in November? My guess is that Humphrey would have won the nomination anyway. But if Bobby had gotten it, then what? Early end to Vietnam? No President Nixon, therefore no Watergate? No Nixon, therefore no Carter? And so on. You can get lost in these endless forks of the hypothetical river.