Thursday, June 5, 2008

Our Time With RFK -- April 1968

On this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, we present a story from The Washington Post Sunday Magazine a few years ago, revisiting a moment in April 1968 when a group of kids met with RFK in an elementary school library. It was for the filming of a campaign ad, but it meant much more to those involved.
(If you click on the images, the story will be large enough to read.)
Below the two images is a revised, expanded version of this same story, printed in the St. Albans Alumni Bulletin this spring, sparked by the inclusion of that campaign ad from 1968 in the movie Bobby.

Our Moment with Bobby: RFK in the Parrott Library
By Brooks Clark ’74
If you watch the movie Bobby closely, you might notice a snippet of a campaign ad from 1968 showing the candidate talking with schoolchildren. Perhaps you will recognize the Lower School’s Parrott Library.
And you might even recognize some of the kids, especially an earnest blond-haired sixth-grade boy nervously holding his black plastic glasses as he sat directly across the library table from Bobby Kennedy.
That child was Paul Lee ’74, at the time my best friend, classmate in Mr. Green’s sixth grade, and four-doors-down neighbor on Garfield Street. Though he and his family moved back to their home in California after the 1968 election, we have always stayed in touch. Soon after Bobby opened, Paul began getting calls from friends who had recognized him.
How did director Emilio Estevez come upon that clip? Probably he did the same thing a summer intern at the magazine where I was an editor had done about twenty-five years after the campaign ad was filmed.
In 1993, I was catching up with Paul, by then an architect in San Francisco and father of two, and I asked him if he remembered grilling Bobby Kennedy at St. Albans. Although we’d never seen the ad, Paul told me he remembered almost every word that Kennedy had said to him that day, and we resolved to put those recollections on paper.
An intern helped us track down the three one-minute ads in a political film library at the University of Oklahoma. When we got our copies, we watched—once again—an unforgettable moment in our lives.
Our date with Senator Kennedy had come out of the blue. Since he’d entered the race just a few weeks before, Kennedy didn’t have any ads in the can, and he needed to make some in a hurry—specifically for the upcoming Indiana primary. Someone decided to film Bobby talking to children, and our neighbor Dun Gifford, then legislative aide to Ted Kennedy, called and asked my mother to round up some kids. We were instructed to prepare questions and to dress “like farm children.”
So we found ourselves on a hot Saturday afternoon in April 1968, clustered with a handful of our friends in front of the Lower School, waiting for Bobby Kennedy. In a few minutes, we were going to be filmed asking the candidate questions. Our parents, gathered a few yards away, were ecstatic, of course, even though we’d been waiting an hour.
Paul remembers that our part of Washington was eerily quiet that afternoon. At the tail end of the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, the National Guard had been called in and a strict curfew placed on the city. Kennedy, we were told, was coming directly from a tour of the riot areas, and he would be along soon.
“I was excited because I was pretty political,” says Randy Smith ’74, one of my classmates waiting outside that day. “I decided to ask about the government’s role in education.” His younger brother, Nick ’75, was set to ask why the government didn’t give more money to poor people.
Bob Atkins ’74, whose father worked at the Middle East desk of the State Department, remembers that his parents wanted him to ask “some nasty questions about the Middle East.”
I loved Hubert Humphrey, because of all he had done for civil rights. This was a big priority in my home. My family had moved from Nashville to Washington in 1960 after my father, the Rev. Bayard Clark, then rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, led a prayer vigil in support of integrating downtown lunch counters.
As a Cathedral canon, my father was present at the “I Have a Dream” speech (you can pick him out in his clerical collar in a crowd photo in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters) and he marched at Selma. I intended to ask Kennedy why he didn’t let Humphrey take his turn first and then he could be president later.

For my buddy Paul, this was a special opportunity. Precocious, politically savvy, ready to change the world, he had already picked Kennedy as his candidate. Paul was in favor of pulling out of Vietnam and, abetted by a rebellious older sister, had even gone to protests.
Paul had drawn up a long list of questions—about nuclear disarmament, hunger, the inner city, civil rights, Vietnam. He intended to ask every one, and I had no doubts that he would. I had watched heated debates between Paul and Randy Kennedy ’73, now a Harvard Law School professor, when they both helped out Allie Ritzenberg at the St. Albans tennis shack.
Thinking about it now, I can see the contrast between me, the child yearning for order, stability, and the familiar hero, and Paul, who passionately wanted change and was internalizing the messages of King and Kennedy in a way that’s hard for most of us to imagine.
Just a few weeks before, the Poor People’s Campaign had covered the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument with a sea of white tents. “I had ridden my bicycle through the tent city with a group of friends,” Paul remembers, “and what made an impression on me was the determination and sobriety of the people as they stood in long soup lines ankle deep in mud from the spring rains. They had come to demand social justice and real opportunity.”
And just days before, at the Cathedral, Paul had heard King deliver what turned out to be the last Sunday sermon of his life. Paul remembers sitting on his front steps and crying uncontrollably after hearing the news of King’s assassination.
Kennedy arrived in a red Chrysler convertible. His face was bright red. I don’t know if it was the heat of the day or the shock of what he’d just seen in the riot-scarred city. The film crew had set up lights and camera in the Parrott Library, and immediately he filled the room with his presence—the charisma, the reality of his being there. I can remem­ber the sense of seeing something from the big world come to life, something intensely real. I remember his gentle eyes and the feeling he gave us when he talked. It still sends chills up my spine when I see the old clips and when I type these words. But much of what I remember from that day was the exchange between Kennedy and Paul.
Paul sat at that li­brary table directly across from Kennedy and fired his questions—and Kennedy was magical in his responses. He listened. He answered directly and honestly. He didn’t patronize, and he projected an aura of caring and understanding.
“Kennedy started by greeting us,” Paul recalls, “letting us know he was pleased to spend this time with us.” Paul’s first impression was of a warm and caring man, his smile bracketed with wrinkles. “It was clear from the moment he sat down in front of me, however,” Paul says, “that this was not to be a ‘kids’ time’ spent on an informal chat. This was an appointment with the voters of America. I had never felt quite so adult. My palms began to sweat.”
Kennedy asked if we knew any political speeches. Some­one said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Then, says Paul, “he surprised us. Instead of diving further into politics, he said he loved poetry and asked if we had any favorite poems we could share with him. We were required to memorize a poem every week in school, so almost everyone raised his hand. He was playing to the whole room and wanted to draw everyone in.” Kennedy shared some verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
One phrase stuck in Paul’s mind: “my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the Western stars, until I die.” Paul recalls, “Kennedy talked about how beautiful the images were to him, and how they ex­pressed a feeling for him about our lives—of being on a quest, reaching out in uncharted directions, with confidence in a better tomorrow.”
“My first question came soon,” Paul remembers. “I had done a report for School on the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, and I had developed a view that the people there were real, feeling people. I worried about the threat of nuclear confrontation. So I offered a leading question: ‘If you are elected president of the United States, would you consider any unilateral steps to de-escalate tension with the Soviet Union?’”
Paul was taken aback when Kennedy’s expression turned stone cold. “His look seemed to pierce right through me. He answered bluntly, ‘Absolutely not,’ and didn’t waver as he continued, ‘My experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis taught me that the leaders of the Soviet Union cannot be trusted under any circumstance.’ There were no follow-ups. The matter was closed.”
Later Paul asked what could be done about poverty in America. “Kennedy called for a partnership of government and private enterprise. One idea was to use tax incentives to stimulate in­vestment in inner cities. Another was that people in these communities would have control over their own corpo­rations, training programs, and schools. It wasn’t a government bene­fits package, he explained; it would be a national effort to instill the benefits of an entrepreneurial econo­my.”
Paul’s final question was about hunger in the world: What could Amer­ica do? Says Paul, “I remember best how knowl­edgeable he was about all the programs that had been tried. He said the Agency for International Development, the Peace Corps, the United Nations programs, and the Alliance for Progress all provided models. We would take what worked and apply it.
Something else that stood out in his answer was the way he viewed solutions in an interconnected way: hunger, he said, was not an isolated problem, but tied to population growth, land reform, education, and democratic political change.” His tone was more measured than when talking about poverty in America. The sense, according to Paul, was that “we would do the best we could, but the problems are unlikely to go away.”
The conversation was unlike any we had ever had before. Randy Smith recalls, “I remember feeling like I hadn’t ever been talked to like that by an adult, talking to us on an equal level, as if he expected us to be at his level. It wasn’t condescending.”
After the session, the students followed the senator outside. Kennedy talked to an aide who was animatedly reviewing the next item on his itinerary. Paul remembers, “Kennedy listened calmly, occasionally nodding or adding a comment to indicate that he was taking it all in. Yet he seemed to be somewhere else. While he waited for his car, I had a remarkable, tangible feeling that he somehow had an awareness that went beyond himself, that in his mind he was in touch with the hearts and aspirations of the American people.” Paul says that at that moment he realized Kennedy was a great and truly compassionate man.
“I remember him putting his hand on me, and feeling physically close to him,” says Randy Smith, “I remembered feeling that he cared.”
In the weeks that followed, Paul started volunteering for Bobby’s campaign. “Every day after school I took the N2 or N4 bus to his National Campaign Headquarters on K Street. I had two jobs: I collected the empty soda bottles for the two-cent deposit, and I was in charge of the automated letter-signing machine, monitoring the felt pen in the autographing machine and putting a new one in when it started to fade.” Every evening, Paul’s father, Phil (then the assistant secretary of health and human services), picked him up on his way home from work.
“The California primary in June was a must-win for Kennedy,” says Paul. “My parents let me move the TV into my room that night. I wasn’t satisfied by the early exit polls indicating the strong Kennedy win. I stayed up into the early-morning hours for Kennedy’s victory speech.
When he finally came down from his hotel suite, I remember the crowd went wild with joy. I will never forget his last words: ‘We are a great country, a compassionate coun­try; that is my basis for running.’ A few moments later he was drowned out by the chants of supporters.
As he disappeared behind the stage, I savored the hope that a healing of America’s wounds was on its way.” Then came the popping sound of the handgun. As he watched the panic on the screen, Paul says he sank into a daze. “It was like getting an injection,” says Paul. “I went totally numb. I probably sat there for a half-hour be­fore I went in to get my parents.”
“He’d become like a hero to me,” says Randy Smith. “The night of the primary I was staying up. I could draw pictures of this I remember it so well. My mom made me go to bed. ‘You can find out in the morning.’ When I woke up I asked, ‘Did he win?’ She said, ‘Yeah, he won, but he was shot.” I spent the whole day in the house. I sat by the radio in my parents’ bedroom. I was completely depressed. I just felt like it was wrong.”
In the days that Kennedy was clinging to life, Nick Smith and a friend went to the Children’s Chapel in the Cathedral. “We prayed for hours and hours that he would live.”
Paul Lee reacted much differently to this assassination than he had to Martin Luther King’s, when he had sat on his front steps and cried. “The feeling I had in the days and weeks that followed the assassination of Robert Kennedy was an emotional numbness. I did not have any focal point for my grief. No one talked to me about it. Not at home or church or school—we were already out for the summer—or among friends.
“I was completely in a state of shock. I didn’t feel any pain. I never cried about it,” Paul recalls. “A sort of depression set in that I didn’t recognize at the time. There was a boredom I had never experienced before. I pulled away from things political, afraid to stand up for anything. From that moment on, I lost my emotions.” Paul’s depression lasted for more than two decades.
In 1993, after the intern discovered the tape, I sent copies to Paul, Randy, and Nick to view. Watching the tape was an experience for us. The camera zooms in on Paul’s face as he nervously holds his black plastic glasses, and on Nick and Randy, looking like angels as Kennedy explains the problems of the poor. “I was impressed at how pertinent Kennedy’s comments were today,” says Nick, who’s now an architect in Washington. Seeing the tape made Randy, now a partner at the law firm of Smith & Fawer in New Orleans, contrast that assassination with King’s. “King’s death was a terrible shock. But I didn’t know him personally.”
Bob Atkins ’74, who left St. Albans in seventh grade, visible in the back of the room in the ads, is now a father of three and a management consultant in Lexington, Mass. Watching the campaign ads, Bob real­ized something he never had as a kid. “I’d gone to high school at Middlesex School in Massachusetts with [Bobby’s middle child] David Kennedy.” David Kennedy, alone in his room at the Ambassador Hotel, had watched on TV as his father was assassinated in the kitchen many floors below. He lived a troubled life, and died of a drug overdose. “I never really thought about the impact that the assassination must have had on him until I had kids,” Bob admits. “There’s no way you could ever forget.”
For Paul, watching the tape helped complete a healing process that had begun after the recent deaths of two friends. In feeling grief, in crying uncontrollably for his friends, he felt an emotional dam break inside him. “I realized I hadn’t felt this way in years. It had been like a twenty-year Novocain dose,” says Paul. “It had affected my whole life.
“I think the cumulative effect of the deaths of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and then Robert Kennedy was to break my passion and hope.” After watching the tapes, Paul started talking with friends about this. “They said, in effect, you’re not alone. Our whole generation’s spirit was broken.”
It’s easy, today, to look back on these impressions cynically—to view them through the prism of the in­tervening years. But Bobby was a hero. And he did leave an impression that doesn’t fade. And how did it af­fect us as a nation to lose him? It’s a question we don’t allow ourselves to consider much. It’s too painful to deal with.
In making the film Bobby, Emilio Estevez was no doubt trying to recapture the passion and feeling of Bobby as a hero. In including that snippet of tape, he couldn’t have known how right he was.

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