Thinking About Kennedys

Thinking about the Kennedys today after watching videos on the news.   Very glad for Teddy’s relatively long life, his long service, and too, well, the simple fact that he died a natural death.

He was not electric like his  political brothers (which may be part of why he lived so long).  But he also was exposed to a kind of public scrutiny that they never had to face.  Plus he had to deal with the simple difficulties of extended life.  Who knows how the reputations of John and Bobby would have fared had they lived longer?

Even a eulogist would admit that Teddy was far from perfect.  But you have to admire people who just hunker down, and who,  despite disappointment, tragedy and disgrace, just try to do their part.

Obviously, people tend to romanticize the Kennedy’s hugely.  We have such a cult of celebrity in this country;  they fit the bill very nicely, what with the looks, the memorable speech patterns, the sheer number and variety of the family members, the equally large numbers of tragedies, the money, the religion, and too, the very human vices.    And finally, they illustrated (for lack of a better word) a kind of archetypal nobility, a kind of Robin Hood quality.  Which came from the fact that they were rich people who worked for causes associated with the poor.   (It is hard to find the Bushes noble in the same way.  They seem, at least to me, to be a rich political family who works for the rich.)

Then too, there is the fact that the deaths of Bob and Robert were simply so shocking.  This was because of their youth;  maybe too because of the relative youth of our media culture.  We were less bombarded then.  The deaths hit us so hard.

Anyone old enough to remember the deaths at all remembers them exactly.  They know  where they were when they heard the news of John’s assassination; and then, five years later, the hours and hours they waited for Bobby to die. These were “Pearl Harbor” moments, airstrikes to the collective consciousness.

JFK’s death was different for me than Bobby’s, of course;  in part because he was President, in part because he was the first, in part because it was 1963 and not 1968.  Bobby’s death came right on the heels of Martin Luther King’s death, and of course, in the middle of the Vietnam War.   But Bobby’s death was so sad.  Less aloof than JFK, he seemed so vulnerable, so warm.

I do not bring up the deaths of Bobby and JFK to in any way diminish Teddy.    It’s simply hard to hear of his death without thinking of theirs.  He was so very dignified through these times.

It all this reminded me of a piece I wrote several years ago, an excerpt from a novel called Nice that starts with RFK’s death.   I include it below:

And then Bobby Kennedy was shot.  Kate had stayed up late, and her mom most of the night, watching the t.v. people try to decide whether he’d have brain damage.

Her mom kept moaning, “oh why didn’t they watch him, they should have watched him.”  Then she’d whisper too, “what in the world is happening to this country?”

That was the dark pool everyone stared into.  Most seemed afraid to actually say the words, but some came straight out with it.  “I just can’t understand what’s happening to this country,” one black woman cried from the screen.  “Jack, Martin, and now Bobby.”

They had the t.v. on the next day at school too, while Bobby was being operated on.  The teachers opened up the sliding wall between the two sixth grades so they could all see.  The wall was a soft zig-zaggy thing that folded up like a blubbery fan.  The teachers had said at the beginning of the year they’d open it all the time for special activities but they never had before this.

There was nothing much new on.  The announcers mainly just paused, their faces masks of seriousness.  Then said the same old stuff again in voices too tired for the normal attack dog edge.

Still, it felt important to Kate that they keep watching.  If they all watched, the whole grade, the whole school, the whole country, it felt like they could somehow keep Bobby alive.  And if he lived long enough, they might even be able to force some miracle. If they just all tried.

But the other kids were being so stupid about it, so dumb.  A bunch of boys played desk football, flicking a wadded-up triangle of paper back and forth.   A knot of girls had their heads down on their desks, passing notes under cover of folded arm.

“I’m tired of this,” Bruce Beebee said, as his wad of paper flipped onto the floor.  “Can’t we just watch some cartoons?”

Miss Carlson came over and whispered to him.

“Oh man,” he said, turning his head away.  “I never liked the guy anyway.”

The boys tittered.   The girls picked up their heads to get a better view.  Miss Carlson, a tall woman, bent over further so that her large face, squeezed into a tight fist, almost pressed into his.  She took his arm too, hard, whispered harder.

Kate sat up straight so she could be seen to be watching the t.v., fearful that the teachers would get fed up, just turn it off.

Some guy talked about the Secret Service.  Armed gunmen, line of fire.  Paid bodyguards and working the crowds.  Bruce stopped pulling from Miss Carlson, suddenly attentive.  The other boys turned up their heads too.  Safe for a little while, Kate lay her head down on her desk, facing a bulletin board.  She’d heard all this stuff the night before.  Maybe even twice.

Miss Carlson had hung their reports about the Old West up there.  California.  Kate’s cover was made of red paper, filled by a setting sun.  The red looked purplish in the dark, the sun like a big eye.

The thing was that Bobby seemed like a real person. Of course, Martin Luther King was a person too, and JFK.  But Bobby seemed somehow different, like a big boy, like one of his own kids.  Every once in a while, they showed pictures of them playing football, real football, blurs of teeth, hair, sweater.

Though what they mainly showed was the other picture, his arms outstretched, his head cradled in blood, his eyes staring upwards as if watching a flight of the spirit.

The room seemed suddenly darker, the splinters of light at the sides of the drawn shades softening to blurred bolts of shadow.   Though it was hard to see much beyond the dark shapes of things, she could sense Miss Carlson just to her side, her reddish cheeks covered with tears.  Mrs. Brown too.  Mrs. Brown with the round teased hair and pink skirt suits, who you could just tell was a Republican.

Dear God, she suddenly prayed.  Let them come out now, let them say that he’s okay.

Let him be President too, okay—just let him have it.

Who even cares about president?  Just let him be okay.

When the newsman said he had died, the teachers turned off the t.v.   It was already time to go home.

The room was too bright, even though a few shades were still drawn, everything looked cheap, rundown, plastic.  Kids banged their chairs onto their desks, grabbing each other.  Buses were called over the loudspeaker.

She wanted to cry.  She wanted to walk arm in arm with someone and cry.  That’s what the big kids had done when JFK had been shot.   They’d been taken out to the playground.  She’d only been in first grade back then and couldn’t really cry, had simply walked around watching them.

But crying wasn’t what people were doing now, not the kids anyway.  They were talking and fighting and pushing each other; they were just getting out of there, the sense of shock left to the sides of the dim broad halls where the teachers stood, grim monitors of the crowd.

All rights reserved (Karin Gustafson)

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