The Big ‘What If?’

Pondering what might have been 40 years after the assassination of RFK.

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What if Bobby Kennedy's bodyguard Roosevelt Grier had spotted the gun a few moments earlier and wrestled Sirhan Sirhan to the floor before he could fire the fatal shot?

What if Kennedy hadn't died only a few hours after he won the 1968 California Democratic primary, but had gone on to win the nomination and the White House?

How would America have been different if the compassionate and empathetic Kennedy had become its leader instead of the tortured and tortuous Richard Nixon?

Such imponderables are impossible to avoid on this, the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's murder on June 6, 1968. The temptation is to believe that with Kennedy at its helm the United States would have sailed in a different and better direction. Some speculation seems solid. We would have gotten out of Vietnam much sooner. We would have fought more fiercely to eliminate poverty and extend civil rights. We would have avoided the turmoil of Watergate. And 1968, the year in history when things actually fell apart, would have ended on a note of hope and bright possibility instead of dread and despair as dark as Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow.

For Americans too young to remember that year, it's impossible to recreate the mood of an impending national implosion. It began in January with the Tet offensive in Vietnam which put the lie to Lyndon Baines Johnson and General William Westmoreland's optimistic claim that there was light at the end of the tunnel.

In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was slaughtered in Memphis and grieving blacks made a funeral pyre of dozens of cities. Politics, too, was in the midst of dramatic upheavals. Eugene McCarthy, a poetic soul of a senator from Minnesota who had become the champion of the anti-war movement, stunned the incumbent president by nearly winning the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, on March 16, Kennedy, who had been dithering on the sidelines, threw his own hat into the ring. At the end of the month, Johnson withdrew.

Like many anti-war activists, I initially bristled at Kennedy's entry, which not only smacked of opportunism and a dynastic sense of entitlement, but also threatened to divide opponents of the war into opposing camps. But it quickly became apparent that Kennedy was a far more transformative figure than McCarthy would ever be. No other politician could have spoken to blacks as Kennedy—the grieving younger brother of a beloved slain president—spoke to a crowd in Indianapolis on the night of King's assassination:

"For those of you who are black—considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

"We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization— black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man."

Kennedy was something special.

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