If this year reminds you of 1968, you are not alone. Yesterday, a friend of mine who was just a little kid that year used social media to highlight the soothing and stirring words spoken by Robert F. Kennedy the night Martin Luther King Jr. was martyred.
RFK was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination that grim April night. No speechwriter penned the words he spoke to a stricken mixed-raced gathering in Indianapolis. These impromptu thoughts came from the heart. It was a short, speech, only 556 words, every one of them a call to social justice, racial healing, and national unity.
Bobby Kennedy began by breaking the awful news to the crowd, many of whom had not heard it. The gasps and cries from the audience were audible. Kennedy noted that King had devoted his life "to love and to justice" -- and had been killed for those efforts.
"In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in," Kennedy told his supporters. "For those of you who are black … you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization: black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
"Or," he continued, "we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
Less than nine weeks later, Kennedy himself was cut down by an assassin's bullet on the night he won California's Democratic presidential primary. In June of 1968, it seemed the country was coming apart. It seems a bit like that now, although those who believe in unity and "love" -- the word Bobby Kennedy kept returning to -- often seem outnumbered. It took a while, but eventually we reclaimed our national optimism. The man perhaps most identified with that rediscovery was also in California that fateful June night. He was running for president in America's other major political party, as a "favorite son" candidate.
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During most of the 1960s, Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy had little use for each other. Not only were they on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they had a personal history. In the early years of the decade, the acquisition of Decca Records and Universal Studios by MCA, Hollywood's powerful talent agency, breathed life into a lingering anti-trust investigation by the Department of Justice. Although the probe had started in the Eisenhower administration, it gathered momentum in 1962 under Attorney General Robert Kennedy. One of the key areas of inquiry was the influence wielded by MCA over the Screen Actors Guild, a union that had elected Reagan to its presidency seven times.
Reagan was required to testify before a grand jury, and his taxes were audited. Little came of it, but the animosity between Reagan and Kennedy, two ambitious Irish American politicians -- one born poor, the other rich; one a Republican, the other a Democrat -- lingered. Five years later, the two men were pitted against each other in a more direct way: They debated the Vietnam War, via an electronic hookup, in front of an audience of foreign college students.
The format was goofy and the discussion quickly devolved into an orgy of America-bashing. By all accounts, including those of Kennedy loyalists, the new governor of California acquitted himself better than the freshman senator from New York. In the U.S., political observers took note: Was this a dress rehearsal for a future presidential debate?
Sadly, it never came to that even though RFK's late entry into the 1968 presidential race coincided with Reagan's own quixotic run that year. Wresting the GOP nomination away from fellow Californian Richard Nixon wasn't in the cards, but Reagan wanted to lay down the conservative marker. His enthusiasm waned the night of his California primary triumph: Reagan was stricken by Bobby's death, and felt particular anguish for Ethel Kennedy, then pregnant with the family's 11th child. In the hours of uncertainty, as she kept vigil beside her husband at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, Gov. Reagan sent her a poignant note. "I know there is little anyone can say at such a time but if there is anything we can do to be of help in any way, please let us know," he wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Nancy and Ronald Reagan." Reagan even offered the services of Nancy's father, neurosurgeon Dr. Loyal Davis.
Before and after those disheartening days, Reagan would discuss the Kennedy family with fellow conservative Barry Goldwater, whose own presidential candidacy had helped launch Reagan's political career. In the Senate, Goldwater and Jack Kennedy had been friends. They openly talked about traveling together -- on the same plane -- during their anticipated 1964 general election faceoff. An assassin ruined those plans as well, but Goldwater imparted to Reagan his respect and affection for the Kennedy clan. According to Goldwater confidant Richard D. Mahoney, 20 years after the Reagan-RFK debate, Reagan phoned Goldwater from Air Force One. Among the topics these two old war horses discussed was the unfulfilled political promise of Robert F. Kennedy -- and of 1968.
"Could you have beaten him?" asked Goldwater.
"Who knows?" answered Reagan. "But I'll tell you one thing: He would have made a helluva president."
This was more than nostalgia from a man entering the twilight of his own presidency. Shortly after assuming office, Reagan scheduled a ceremony that Jimmy Carter had refused to arrange: the awarding to Ethel Kennedy a special congressional medal in honor of her husband. The ritual had to be rescheduled -- again, an assassin tried to alter U.S. history -- but Reagan recovered from his wounds and on June 5, 1981, he paid homage to the American statesman slain on that date 13 years earlier.
"The facts of Robert Kennedy's public career stand alone," President Reagan said that day. "He aroused the comfortable. He exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen, and renewed and enriched the American conscience." Reagan then quoted from Bobby Kennedy's own words, among the last he spoke, on that fateful night in Los Angeles.
"What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States -- the division, the violence, the disenfranchisement without society; the divisions, whether it's between blacks and whites, between poor and more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam -- is that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.