On this day 40 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy spoke at Campau Square in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had received a call from a classmate several days earlier asking if I wanted to help organize a rally for the Senator. I went to Grand Rapids and was introduced to two of his advance men, Madison Avenue types dressed in expensive suits, who were holed up at the old Pantlind Hotel adjacent to the square. I spent several days working with them, arriving early each morning, passing as I did long lines of emptied bottles of scotch and bourbon, joining them for breakfast before hitting the streets. I put in several such days in the warm spring sun. This Thursday proved no exception and the event was held in what became a bright and sunny afternoon for so early in the year. The press reported the crowd to be around ten thousand, as I remember it, numbers not seen again until John Kerry made an appearance in the city 36 years later.
I fully understand the excitement of the Obama campaign. Reports of those that have attended Obama’s recent campaign rallies talk about the electricity that he generates. I know, forty years ago, I was there too. The crowd had been gathering for well over an hour first in small knots, then over time forming itself into a large mass in front of the podium. As the bus arrived there was a roar as the crowd, almost as one, surged forward. What struck me, as the Senator took the platform, was how old and frail he looked. He was thin and wan, as if he could easily have been blown away by a strong breeze. He looked much older than he appeared in pictures, much older than his 42 years. Worry lines were deeply etched into his tanned face; his hair was speckled in grey. After being introduced, Kennedy immediately established a rapport with the crowd. Knowing this was Jerry Ford’s district he asked rather impishly “I've been told this is Republican country, is that right?” to which the crowd shouted a resounding "NO!" “I didn’t think so,” replied the Senator with a toothy grin. “There aren't any Republicans here, are there?”, he asked again, and the crowd thundered “NO!” Of course everyone knew better and we all had a great laugh. Then the Senator began talking in earnest about the problems facing the country. He talked of his concern that the President had just called up more troops to be sent into the maw of war. The crowd stood in rapt attention and as he spoke a small group of protesters made a bit of noise on the periphery. He spoke for about twenty minutes about the urgent need to find a just solution to the conflict in Vietnam and the necessity to create a more equitable society. Then he stopped and leaned down to touch the crowd. Outstretched hands reached for him, relieving him of his cufflinks, a practice that was then fast becoming a ritual at each campaign stop. All too soon he stepped off the platform and disappeared into his bus and was gone. I was struck by the rapport he established with the crowd, as well as his unease at the podium. He was not a natural speaker, and was not comfortable before crowds. His voice carried an undercurrent of unease and nervousness, trembling a bit yet expressing a depth of commitment and sincerity that was palpable. His hands shook as he spoke. Here standing before us, the heir of Camelot, was a man who reached out to embrace what appeared to be at times polar opposites, and implicit contradictions. Here was a man who understood the use and misuse of power; a man with a reputation for ruthlessness, but also the tribune of the dispossessed; a man who possessed uncommon courage and was known to take great risk, but conveyed through body language a deep personal vulnerability.
I remember looking around at the crowd before and during the speech. The event was held at the center of the old town. Flanked by the Pantlind Hotel, the old Woolworth’s Building, and several high-rise office buildings that dwarfed the proceedings, his high reedy voice reverberated down the brick and concrete canyon as it passed over the crowd. Standing at the heart of town, amidst the bustle and smell of the city, Bobby conveyed nothing if not a sense of vulnerability and it was this vulnerability that, I believe, was at the heart of the deeply unspoken connections that he made with those in the crowd.
If you were black you understood vulnerability. It was said at the time that if you were black you were the last to be hired and the first to be fired if the economy went sour; you knew the scourge of injustice and daily experienced both the visible and invisible hands of cruel fate. If you were white, especially a recent refugee who had moved from southern fields into the northern factories, you also understood vulnerability. Stints at the factory interrupted by occasional layoffs, in which one had to hustle up whatever work one could find, and feed your family on government surplus rations. Periods of precarious good times interrupted by the near terror of unemployment in which palpable fear was felt at the kitchen table as parents openly worried about where they would find the next meal. There were millions in America who knew such anxiety and vulnerability. In Bobby, despite his origins, they sensed after Dallas a kindred soul, one which the Fates had also treated cruelly. They saw in Bobby a vulnerability with different causes to be sure, but a vulnerability they immediately recognized as one with their own. This, it appeared to me, was the glue that bound together blacks and poor whites—groups living precariously and normally seen as bitter rivals for the crumbs that have dropped from the tables of the established order—behind the candidacy of Robert Kennedy. Bobby was able to convey not simply in speech but, much more importantly it seemed to me as I watched him that afternoon, through body language a sense of loss and struggle to those who found both a daily companion. To stand before us and give testimony to great loss and yet raise hope is what made him such an anomaly in American politics. This is what lent such gravitas to his call to ‘seek a newer world’ by creating a more just society. As Roosevelt’s battle with polio had humanized him, the tragedy at Dallas had transformed this son of privilege into a tribune of the people. Mother used to remind me when I was, in her estimation, too stridently critical of Lyndon Johnson that great political leaders don’t grow on trees. What she meant, of course, is that they don’t come along every day.