In my final days as a senior at Wantagh High School in June 1968, I spent my after-school hours at Nassau County Democratic headquarters in Mineola working the phones for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in advance of the all-important California primary on June 4, 1968.
I enjoyed the back-and-forth with registered Democrats — even those who supported Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota or Vice President Hubert Humphrey. With the New York primary scheduled later that month, a victory in delegate-rich California would have given RFK momentum and help to ensure a victory in New York.
I left headquarters about 10 p.m. and returned home to watch the returns on my little black-and-white bedroom television. Given the three-hour time difference, I waited until 1 a.m. to hear Kennedy declared the winner and went to bed, secure in the knowledge that I would redouble my efforts on his behalf the week leading up to the New York primary.
For reasons I will never understand, I awoke about 3 a.m. and noticed that the Kennedy poster I had on my wall had fallen on the floor. Somewhat flustered, I turned the TV back on and learned the horrible news about what happened after I went to bed. I spent the ensuing days in somewhat of a daze, surrounded by classmates who almost uniformly supported the candidacy of Richard Nixon. I did not enjoy my last month of high school very much.
In recent weeks, those memories came flooding back with the release of a documentary on Netflix entitled “Bobby Kennedy for President.” My friend Kevin Powell, the author/activist, and others told me how powerful the miniseries was and encouraged me to watch it . . . to no avail. A few days ago, I relented and watched the first episode, which culminated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Bobby’s subsequent descent into depression and despair. I have not watched the remaining three episodes yet.
For many of us who lived through this tumultuous and heart-rending era in our nation’s history, the scars do not heal. Assassinations, riots, a war that went on without an end in sight, a nation coming apart at the seams. When young people tell me about the sense of despair they felt in 2016, I tell them to study the timeline of 1968.
Would things have been different had Bobby Kennedy lived? I can’t waste my time or my emotions on that question. He didn’t. Was he the sainted figure so many of us saw him to be? Hardly. Do I regret investing so much of my time, energy, and belief in him? Absolutely not.
Several years ago, I attended a screening of the 2012 documentary “Ethel,” about Bobby Kennedy’s widow, which their youngest daughter, Rory, directed. After the movie, Rory, who was born after her father’s death, spoke with the audience about her mother and living with her dad’s legacy. In the lobby, I introduced myself and told her how much her father meant to me at such a critical juncture in my own life. She thanked me graciously, and we took a picture, which I carry with me in my cellphone. I met RFK at a political rally on Hempstead Turnpike in 1964 and she bears a striking resemblance to her father.
On June 6, 2018, the 50th anniversary of RFK’s passing, I will watch the remaining episodes of “Bobby Kennedy for President” on Netflix and reflect on the past 50 years of American history and that of the world, not through the gauzy lens of a documentary, but through the eyes of one who is older, hopefully a bit wiser, and who retains a small fraction of the idealism that he derived from a campaign that ended so tragically.
Michael Cohen is a retired educator who lives in Brightwaters. He is the editorial director of BKNation.org.