Today marks another anniversary of a life-changing event for me, though not a fun one. On a hot Tuesday evening in the spring of 1968, my folk-rock band, The Morning, was in New York to open the show for comedian David Steinberg at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. After the gig, in the early morning hours of June 5th, several of us drove up the Hudson River to spend the night at the West Nyack home of the Kastners, the accommodating parents of our guitarist, Mat.
Upon arrival I resumed my usual late-night ritual of ransacking the Kastner kitchen for anything edible. ("Starving artist" was more than a metaphor for me at the time.) I was busily engaged in a Heimlich maneuver on the refrigerator when the phone startled me around 3:30am. Within two minutes, Mat's dad, Joseph Kastner (who happened to be Life magazine's copy editor), appeared in the kitchen doorway in his pajamas to announce that Robert Kennedy had been shot in a Los Angeles hotel. Kennedy had just won the all-important California primary election, giving him favored status to win the Democratic presidential nomination that summer and setting up a likely campaign against Richard Nixon in the general election. But within a day, Bobby Kennedy would die of gunshot wounds to the head.
Following Martin Luther King's assassination two months earlier, this was a devastating blow to the idealism of the time. Something in America seemed irrevocably lost. Working in the city that week, I remember how distraught the folk music community in Greenwich Village was. Bleecker Street was in mourning for days.
To provide a some background… After the assassination in 1963 of his brother, President John Kennedy, Bobby had metamorphosed from a merciless end-justifies-the-means Attorney General to the chief advocate for America's dispossessed while New York Senator. (He was already ahead of his time, and political colleagues, in pushing for the Civil Rights Act as early as 1962.) By the spring of 1968 Kennedy was as popular as a rock star—a leader of conscience and iconic champion of the disaffected and disenfranchised, widely embraced by America's youth. He was one of the few American political leaders to express moral outrage at the horrific poverty he encountered in the rural backlands of the South and the urban ghettoes of the North—as well as the unnecessary squander of human life in Vietnam. In the final year of his life it seemed like he was searching for the heart of America, and was shocked at what he found along the way.
But Bobby Kennedy never accepted abject poverty as an inevitable concomitant of free markets. In fact he called business to task for abdicating its responsibility in the face of such transparent injustices. "The great corporations that are so large a part of American life play so small a role in the solution of its vital problems," he wrote in To Seek a Newer World—a not-widely-read polemic released just months before his assassination—which applies as well to the issues of today. He went on to say:
I would insist that business practices of all sorts need to be directed by a sound ethical theory grounded in a true and proper anthropology. Economic theory tends to see unconstrained business practices as self-correcting, mending their own flaws and healing the harms they create. The reality is that modern business practices are awesomely powerful tools that may not be toxic in themselves, but are easily corrupted if poorly directed.
I often wonder how America's storyline, which included five more years in an ill-begotten Southeast Asian war, might have been rewritten if Robert F. Kennedy had lived—and served as U.S. President.
Traveling in and out of New York City that week I was struck by the eerily prescient lyrics of a Simon & Garfunkel song I heard on WNEW-FM: "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all gone to look for America."