The piece below was written long before we knew the outcome of the presidential election. The fear that I expressed in the last line proved unfounded. And it did so in large measure because of legislation that Ted Kennedy helped enact during his years in the Senate, which helped make us a more tolerant people.
“The President, the Senator, and the Candidate”
(May 21, 2008) Today, as the severity of Senator Kennedy’s condition became more apparent, I found myself, once again, back in seventh grade. I am in a large hall, waiting in line. I am not sure what the line is for, and for some reason the line can’t seem to form properly. We seem to be waiting to go into an auditorium. Words are migrating from student to student. It is November 22nd, 1963. The President has been shot. Next to me stands a sweet looking young girl. Shoulder length dirty blond hair. Delicate features. And she says, “I hope that he dies.” This was the President who had taken us through the Cuban Missile Crisis, who spoke of civil rights, and who had two young children. And she wanted him dead. Her hatred was palpable and irrational. In retrospect, given the times, I have always wondered whether her enmity was due to the fact that he was a Catholic, and one who supported civil rights.
At 12 years old, I couldn’t fathom what I was hearing. I was struck dumb. I simply couldn’t respond. I just stared at her and turned away. Now, of course, I know that it was not her wish, but her parents’ or some relative’s wish. But over the years this fact has only intensified the shock. Everyone says that they remember where they were when they heard that Kennedy was shot. I remember. But I also recall a young girl who believed that she wanted to see him dead.
Before I became fully aware of the deep divisions in the country over civil rights, Vietnam, or “values,” I knew that if this young president could create such hostility, something was terribly wrong. And so it was. I suppose that this was my introduction to the 1960’s. Every now and again this scene reappears. Sometimes it arises for no apparent reason. Sometimes it arises at appropriate moments, like today, when we have learned that Senator Kennedy is gravely ill.
I have disagreed with the Kennedys. But I remember supporting Bobby. And of course I remember him being shot. I also remember Teddy trying so very hard, over four long decades, to do the right thing (as he saw it) for the underprivileged and marginalized. I recently cheered as The Lion of the Senate passed the torch to Obama. He was aging. Now that he had found someone he trusted to carry on the Kennedy legacy, there was an arc from 1963 to 2008, an arc that the last eight years of Bush, Rove, Cheney, et al, seemed to have made impossible. But as I have watched the returns from certain states, such as Kentucky this evening, I return to that space in 1963, and I am afraid. I fear for Senator Obama. And I fear that as a nation we will fail to do the right thing because we are still too afraid of those who are “not like us.”