Touchstones, by Elayne Riggs
Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby
Can you tell me where he’s gone
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John.
Well, last time I did an actual comic book review, and as expected it received almost no comments. So I don’t want to hear from anyone about how this column isn’t about comics!
I could probably make it about comics. After all, I’m going to be discussing the ’60s, which were about many things. Many people my age cut their fanboy and fangirl teeth on Marvel comics of the ’60s. (Me, I didn’t start reading until the mid-’80s or so, even though my late best friend Bill Marcinko tried pretty hard to get me interested in the Marvels of the late ’70s.) But, despite my trepidation about the kind of Google ads this column will attract, today I want to write about something else that happened in the ’60s, and about the persistence of memory.
Last week on the campaign trail, in an interview given to South Dakota’s Argus Leader, a frustrated Hillary Clinton reiterated her response to the "why won’t that bitch just quit?" crowd of media pundits that she’d initially articulated in a Time magazine interview back in March. Her original words: "I think people have short memories. Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn’t wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual."
This time around the phrasing was only slightly different: "My husband didn’t wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June. We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know I just don’t understand it," the "it" in question being the pundits’ incessant and unprecedented calls for a leading candidate to step aside (as if the media were orchestrating the process rather than the voters of each state). In March, nobody seemed to notice; this time, with the anti-Clinton hysteria ratcheted up as high as it’s been since the Whitewater nonsense, suddenly all sorts of folks were up in arms.
Now, I don’t want to delve too much into the varied reactions to this fairly matter-of-fact statement. I’ve already done that on my blog, here and here, and urge folks who automatically assume I’m a Clinton supporter (and thus my analysis can be discounted) to read those two entries. In summary, I think Clinton’s phrasing was put rather poorly, she might have said something more like "we all remember how Bobby Kennedy had just won a closely-contested race in June when he was tragically taken from us" or somesuch. But I think it still wouldn’t have helped.
Even RFK Jr.’s correct reading of her words ("It is clear from the context that Hillary was invoking a familiar political circumstance in order to support her decision to stay in the race through June. I have heard her make this reference before, also citing her husband’s 1992 race, both of which were hard fought through June. I understand how highly charged the atmosphere is, but I think it is a mistake for people to take offense.") wasn’t enough. Heck, even "I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family, was in any way offensive" wouldn’t do for those inclined, nay eager, to stretch logic and credulity and take offense on others’ behalf and believe the worst, many of whom were chomping at the bit to find something, anything else to yank out of context and pin on her like a poisoned corsage.
It reminded me of Usenet. Clinton’s deep in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t territory, has been for months. Beyond that, for a lot of people, you just can’t say the "A" word at all, it invokes the specter with which nobody wants to consciously deal. It taps into their worst fears. And very likely Clinton’s as well; I’ve no doubt the first viable female US Presidential candidate has had to contend with just about as many death threats from loonies as her opponent has.
Assassination is something that reverberates through the years and affects a lot of people very deeply. It’s recognized as a special brand of fear in this age of rule-by-fearmongering. It’s something that strikes at the soul of the nation, touching us all through targeting someone we’ve grown to admire, someone taken from us way too soon, before the rest of their good works can be accomplished, someone who, damn it, should have been protected from this random madness. To leave a people without a leader can conjure up an immense sense of helplessness from deep within our lizard brains. We don’t want to think about it. And yet it creeps in, constantly.
I wasn’t old enough to really remember the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK. I think they first drifted into my consciousness with the lyrics of the Dion song referenced above. But I’ve been profoundly affected by a more recent assassination. I’ve often defined the two major touchstones in modern US history that directly led to our current downward spiral (and make no mistake, even with eight years under the right-leaning centrist Bill Clinton and now with the Democratic race between the centrists Obama and Hillary, the political pendulum in this country has yet to swing back even to the point where more than a few so-called liberals actually espouse progressive political programs) were the election of Ronald Reagan and his campaign’s efforts to forestall an "October surprise," and the assassination of John Lennon. I mention this a lot. It doesn’t mean I’m eager to see any other progressive activist musician or ex-Beatle assassinated! It means it affected me a lot, and continues to this day to inform my feelings about this country’s political and cultural direction.
Hillary Clinton’s a decade older than me, and has spoken before about how profoundly the death of both MLK and RFK affected her. This is from her speech in Memphis last month on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death:
Like many of you here who are of a certain age, I will never forget where I was when I heard Dr. King had been killed. I was a junior in college. And I remember hearing about it and just feeling such despair. I walked onto my dorm room, took my book bag and hurled it across the room. It felt like everything had been shattered, like we would never be able to put the pieces together again.
I joined a protest march in Boston. I wore a black armband. I worked to convince my college to recruit more students and faculty of color, but it felt like it wasn’t enough. And then a few months later we heard of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, whose eloquence and courage had helped to persuade the people of Indianapolis to follow Dr. King’s example of non-violence. I remember wandering through the encampments of the Poor People’s March on Washington talking with those who had come from literally around the world to witness against poverty and injustice. It felt like the doors had closed on the hope that so many had felt. But that would have been such a disservice to Dr. King. To have taken the despair, the outrage and just ended with that.
By the way, I think it’s extremely telling of the double-standard coverage that surrounds each of the three main candidates that I had to go to Clinton’s campaign website to find a transcript of that speech, since most mainstream media, like this USA Today piece, only link to full transcripts from McCain and Obama.
And let’s not forget that, like Clinton, Obama also looks to the storied days of Camelot for his inspiration. His campaign doesn’t discourage comparisons with JFK, most prominent members of the Kennedy family have endorsed him, and he even followed in RFK’s footsteps by making his MLK remembrance speech in Indiana, saying, "And in few places was the pain more pronounced than in Indianapolis, where Robert Kennedy happened to be campaigning. And it fell to him to inform a crowded park that Dr. King had been killed. And as the shock turned toward anger, Kennedy reminded them of Dr. King’s compassion, and his love. And on a night when cities across the nation were alight with violence, all was quiet in Indianapolis."
Just about every prominent Democratic politician nowadays wants to own the Kennedys, or at least the idea thereof. The name is still magical to many of us. Camelot! The heroic boy king, his attractive family, his band of brothers. And now, as the last of those brothers is threatened with an inoperable brain tumor, the specter rises again. So much lost, so much that could have been.
That also characterizes the ’60s for many Boomers. Helped by the way the media have framed those years, many people my age or a little older consider the ’60s to be the epitome of social progress. For many, it was. We made progress as a society by leaps and bounds. For me, the gay rights and women’s movements got going well after Woodstock, so I saw a continuation of that era well into the late ’70s when I attended college. I don’t remember Kennedy’s presidency, but Jimmy Carter’s was mostly admirable and I still consider him my absolute favorite living president. And when I graduated it seemed like we as a country could accomplish anything — until boom, the next year brought us Reagan’s election and John’s death. We couldn’t even imagine any more.
So yeah, I don’t begrudge Clinton her cultural and political touchstones. They shaped her every bit as much as the Reagan/Lennon one-two sucker punch shaped me. They’re things she needs to remember, to cling to, to use as inspiration for her own career. Thing is, there’s always the danger we’ll get too wrapped up in the past to push forward into the present and future. And as we all remember the 40th anniversary of that sad day a week from tomorrow, we’re obligated to turn it around to reclaim that lost energy for ourselves. After all, energy doesn’t disappear, it simply changes form. We are the ones on whose shoulders it now falls to create a new Camelot that not only echoes the old, but surpasses it. Maybe not now, maybe not in four years, but in little increments every day and for the rest of our lives.
Elayne Riggs blogs here, voted for Barack Obama in the NY Democratic primary mostly because she admires his written and verbal eloquence, and still hopes to see an actual progressive Democrat win the White House during her lifetime.