Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Bricks Seem So Well Timed

I have no idea if the author of this book is a crank or a legitimate investigator/historian. The facts he cites seem, um, "factual," that is, can be more or less easily confirmed. Sirhan Sirhan's asserted amnesia seems to be something he was saying from the start (I just read about it for the first time yesterday, which is itself a symptom). It is also factual that the LAPD under Gates proved over later time to be corrupt. But let's start somewhere else.

In February of 1968 the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive. It was aimed at among other things illustrating to the world that the Americans were not making much progress. It succeeded in that effort.

President Johnson had been telling America that "we" were winning. America was growing very tired of seeing its soldiers bloodied and arriving home in body bags. America held a hope that at least things were going to end, and soon. There was a presidential election in 1968. Senator Eugene McCarthy had already taken on our war policy, against his own political party, and had shown clear strength in the early New Hampshire primary. There were rumors that Bobby Kennedy might enter the race as an anti-war candidate as well. Dr. Martin Luther King was also taking strong anti-war positions, as well as expanding his movement to include classic labor issues. After the Tet Offensive (which on a purely military view was not "successful"--an analytical framework which also judges Gettysburg as being "in fact" a draw), Lyndon Johnson essentially resigned.

I was a graduate student at UNC in 1968. I was reading a lot of heavy stuff--Kant, Wittgenstein, Peter Strawson, Paul Feyerabend. I'd watch the news in the evenings. I felt that the Vietnam War had betrayed all the ideals America had just embarked upon with the great legislative victories at the end of the Civil Rights era, and that the principles that grounded our broadened civil rights perspective were being exactly betrayed by our also embarking on a war in a 3rd world country. I thought Mohammed Ali had a good point, to put my point of view succinctly. But I was not looking at American politics as critically as I was looking at Kant. I had a dissertation to write.

Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy had already entered the primaries, and made a remarkable public appearance which quelled a riot of utter frustration in Indiana. He was explicitly offering some hope that all the good will of the conclusion of the civil rights struggles would not be entirely lost in Vietnam and, now, King's murder. Nonetheless, cities did burn. In the recent Baltimore events frequent mention was in fact made of the literal scars still visible from the King riots of 1968. Kennedy began to win primaries. He represented democracy that spring of 1968--the voters were disgusted with our current policies. Bobby Kennedy had a good chance of winning the Presidency, and of subsequently changing the course of American foreign policy, even if to do such a thing would be to contradict the great American warrior principle, that once American blood is shed, victory will be achieved. See, e.g., Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima.

In early June, after winning the California primary (which nearly guaranteed his nomination since Lyndon Johnson was not running), Bobby Kennedy was gunned down.

I happened to be in Nova Scotia when that happened. I was at a little bed and breakfast with my then wife. The Canadians were very upset, and expressed their personal condolences to us at breakfast. It was so disconcerting to be out of the United States that we drove back to North Carolina and spent the last few days of vacation time at the beach. It never occurred to either of us that the murders of King and/or Bobby Kennedy might be more than just random expressions of psycho violence. Nor, for that matter, had we ever thought that possibly JFK's murder in Dallas was something different from what had been determined by the Warren Commission.

Richard Nixon was elected as the "peace candidate." This is really true. He ran as the peace candidate, and I believe even used such a phrase while campaigning. There was a lot of general distaste in the electorate to think of voting for Hubert Humphrey, simply because Humphrey had been Johnson's vice-president, and notwithstanding that he also promised to look for an end to the Vietnam adventure. The war policies which were underway at the start of 1968 were continued by the Nixon Administration even into his second term, where his election included many extra-legal "dirty tricks" which managed to drive the most likely successful Democratic contender, Edmund Muskie, out of the race. And then, of course, there was Watergate, which was a detailed investigation which proved that Nixon and his associates were willing to do pretty much anything to win an election against an actual World War II hero who, like most "heros," didn't believe in trading on his accomplishments in war in any way, shape or form. Nixon won a landslide against George McGovern. The war in Vietnam continued.

By the time the Vietnam war was over I was living in Manhattan as a cast member of Diamond Studs, a musical based on the life of Jesse James, who was in fact an unreconstructed traitor to the United States who survived fifteen years after the end of the Civil War by murder and bank robbery. Assassinated in Missouri in 1881, he was transformed into a romantic myth, an almost Christ figure. Our play portrayed him as such, although with a certain amount of tongue in cheek. As general awareness of the truth of Mr. James expanded, Diamond Studs became somewhat embarrassing in its naivete, and I would think that today it would be unlikely to be remounted in venues to the north of Mississippi. We were young is my meaculpa. The New York Times theatre reviewer of the moment said "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes." You can look it up.

That's the cast in a pre-opening publicity shot. Jesse is played by Jim Wann, native of Chattanooga, who co-wrote the play. He's in the middle in the white shirt, probably singing "Cakewalk into Kansas City," a rousing number of uncommon quality which always brought the house to cheers and applause.

Who was thinking, in 1975, that Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in order that American foreign policy with regards to Vietnam could continue uninterrupted, or that Martin Luther King was murdered to further that same end. And of course only a very tiny handful knew that peace negotiations in the fall of 1968 had been broken by the manipulations of Henry Kissinger, to further Nixon's electoral success. We tried our best, in 1975, to ignore Vietnam. I do recall seeing the headlines as I walked along some Manhattan street that Saigon had fallen. I do recall thinking, "thank God it's over." This vivid memory is probably why I love Frank O'Hara's poem, "Lana Turner Has Collapsed."

Later, in the '80s, Martin Luther King was also elevated to romantic myth, with a National Holiday established for him, and a huge marble statue in Washington. Many in the Republican Party objected for a time. Others realized right away that romantic myths are exactly where courageous martyrs need to be shelved. My 35-year-old daughter, born in 1979, probably has no idea at all about Robert Kennedy's assassination. If her schooling was like mine, she never got to history in the 1960s. We never got to World War II when I was in public school. There was just too much to cover before those times, although my elementary school principal, who had been among those liberating Germany, did bring a trophy of that moment to school one day, to pass around our 5th Grade Class: a real German Luger pistol. He said people threw weapons out their windows as American soldiers marched past, and this one landed at his feet. This might, too, have been something of a myth, although the pistol was real and I held it in my hand.

It's a mystery that the death of Robert F. Kennedy, an event which likely changed history, floats unmoored, its own myth an aspic protecting it from all scrutiny. Sirhan Sirhan asks for a retrial. Authorities smile and turn away. Most of the principals are dead. We embark on a new election season. The United States Army invades Texas, where it already lives. Even on PBS reporters intone that possibly Ms. Mosby's indictments are hasty, yet no one at all remarks that her judgment took far more time than the indictment of Mr. Gray by the street cops who tossed him into the wagon and to his death. These are anyways not happy thoughts for a Mother's Day.

I guess all this reverie was sparked in some measure by an odd incident. Yesterday at the scrap yard where I work, the county metal collector delivered an old Anvil case amongst his several thousand pounds of steel scrap, built back in the '80s for transporting musical instruments and other fragile objects on aircraft. It was stamped "The Red Clay Ramblers." One of the crane operators noticed it and brought it up to the office. "Weren't you in that band?" he asked. "Yep." Small world.

It made me think of the Yardbirds' guitar neck. One of the guys said it would make a good gun case. "Get that melted foam out, clean it up." The boss said it'd look good floating down the Haw and over the dam at 15-501.


  1. Melanson was legit. See his books on MLK, RFK & LHO. - mg

  2. Another interesting fact, when viewed in a critical light: all the alleged assassins (plus the man who shot George Wallace) left incriminating diaries. How convenient.