“The key question is to pass beyond the facts of CIA’s operations to the reasons they were established – which inexorably will lead to economic questions:
Preservation of property relations and other institutions on which rest the interests of our own wealthy and privileged minority.
— Phillip Agee, CIA Officer
t was 1968.
Bobby Kennedy was running for President.
He offered the opportunity to redeem the terrible slaying of his brother.
Bobby blamed himself for Jack’s death. If it hadn’t have been for the machinations around Cuba, Jack might have still been President.
Bobby was in the middle of those machinations. He had been giving advice to the CIA on how to do its job in Latin America and elsewhere. Many Agency officers did not appreciate his efforts, and said so.
He had his own ideas on how to overthrow Castro – while ordering the Agency to stop working with the Mafia to assassinate the Cuban leader.
He had his own ruthless side. Historian Evan Thomas has described how Bobby considered manufacturing an incident to justify an American invasion in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis.
He also supported his brother when Jack changed tactics and tried to reach rapproachement with Fidel in the summer and autumn of 1963.
In the days after Jack’s death, both Bobby and Jackie Kennedy reached out to the Russians and told them that they believed that JFK had been killed due to a domestic operation.
LBJ didn’t want any part of Cuba after what happened to JFK. He turned to Vietnam.
The escalation of civil rights struggles in the midst of a war economy resulted in a social explosion. LBJ was forced to step down. Bobby found himself being forced to step up.
The question of “who had what” and “who had how much” was on the table.
The Black Panthers were seen doing security at his big city rallies.
He traveled to the Mississippi Delta to learn more about poverty.
Cesar Chavez and Bobby stood together in the Central Valley fields.
Working-class white people embraced RFK as one of their own. He was Irish. His father was a bootlegger.
Religious leaders welcomed him. He was a devout Catholic, fiercely ecumenical.
He was determined to bring an end to the Vietnam War.
In a divisive time, a terrible time, he offered the possibility of healing.
He delivered an incredible oration in Indianapolis that prevented riots in that city during the night that Martin Luther King was killed.
To that largely African American audience, he spoke about Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright. Aeschylus is known as the father of tragedy.
Bobby had studied Aeschylus in his attempts to cope with his profound suffering.
Aeschylus worked in a vineyard. He told how the god Dionysus visited him in his sleep. Dionysus commanded him to make tragedy his life’s work.
Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought to defend Athens during the Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon. The Athenians triumphed over impossible odds. Cynegeirus, however, died in the battle.
From memory, Bobby quoted Aeschylus to the men and women turned towards him that night.
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Even now, it is hard to grasp the loss of Martin Luther King. Or Medgar Evers. Or the four little girls in Birmingham. Or Malcolm. Or many other civil rights leaders.
When there was a second Kennedy assassination, it seemed like the end of hope.
Many of Bobby’s followers turned to the right and voted for George Wallace in the general election, a Southern governor who stood for segregation.
What made it even worse – if humanly possible – is that there was no attempt for justice for Bobby.
Everyone knew Sirhan Sirhan had fired a revolver – but the coroner made a critical finding.
“The powder residue pattern on the right ear of Senator Kennedy was caused at a muzzle distance of approximately one inch.”
No one saw Sirhan get closer than two feet from RFK. No one ever saw him get behind Bobby’s head. The acoustics evidence showed 13 shots. There were more than eight bullet holes. Sirhan’s revolver held eight bullets.
The evidence was manipulated by a special police unit led by Manuel Pena, who intimidated witnesses and misconstrued the facts at every turn. Pena had been working on special assignments for the CIA for more than ten years.
The autopsy report showing the “one inch muzzle distance” was not given to Sirhan’s lawyer Grant Cooper until he had already stipulated to his client’s guilt.
Furthermore, Cooper was fatally compromised. The attorney was facing disbarment due to a controversy involving grand jury papers found on his desk while he was on a defense team representing Johnny Rosselli, a key player in the CIA-Mafia plots to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Cooper wasn’t about to rock the boat by putting the government on trial. He used a diminished capacity defense and ignored the second gunman evidence. It was no surprise that this anemic approach failed. Sirhan was convicted for first degree murder and was given life in prison. Why did Sirhan do it? Who were his compatriots? We, the people, learned nothing.
From the seventies onward, the progressive challenge was to fight against succumbing to apathy. Poverty in America went from bad to worse. The forces of military and intelligence took a momentary hit after Vietnam, only to proceed to double and redouble their formidable budgets.
Many progressive organizers were no longer willing to work in national politics – or politics at all.
George McGovern managed to obtain the Democratic nomination in 1972 – only to learn later on that his victory was the plan of the Nixon inner circle. Nixon’s people sabotaged the campaign of the more centrist Ed Muskie.
Remember Lucianne Goldberg – the woman who convinced Linda Tripp to convince Monica Lewinsky to hold on to the blue dress with Clinton’s DNA all over it? During 1972, she succeeded in the outing of McGovern’s vice presidential candidate Tom Eagleton for electroshock treatments, effectively destroying any chance the campaign had to overtake Nixon’s reelection machine.
There was a resurgence of progressive work in the 70s – steadily beaten down and marginalized by the strange terrors of the SLA, the Zebra Killings, and Jonestown. The strange deaths of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The mysterious assassination of RFK champion Al Lowenstein, one of the only politicians questioning the cause of Bobby’s assassination.
All of these tragedies – from JFK’s death to the shooting of Reagan – had one thing in common: the determined incuriosity of the elected classes and the media. Any organized attempt to investigate these events was waved off as unpatriotic or scoffed at as paranoid.
The result was predictable: A country that no longer knows its history. A nation with little belief in progress, or even the notion of progress. A culture that can be readily manipulated by yet another shock or media event.
The shooting of leaders seemed to end with the shooting of Reagan. The strange events then shifted to “honey traps” – Gary Hart and Bill Clinton were just two men whose careers and reputations took a U-turn. Plenty of Republican and Democratic leaders were taken down in the process. A particularly virulent form of opposition research.
The underground economy of drugs became as large as the visible economy. Arms trading, secret wars, Iraq, Afghanistan – fueled by the powerful tools emerging from Silicon Valley – became the driver of employment. The economy of the middle of the country was hollowed out. Manufacturers fled to the Third World for fewer regulations and cheaper labor. Meanwhile, the cost of real estate on the coastlines of the US and Western Europe spiraled to undreamed-of heights.
Now, in 2018, economic dislocation is the order of the day. Like in FDR’s time.
People in the West now realize what they have in common. In a culture based on possessions, most Americans own relatively little. The last thirty years have seen the biggest transfer of wealth from one social class to another in human history. One percent of the population controls about 40 percent of the resources.
The antipoverty organizer Cheri Honkala likes to say: “The poor have zero. They don’t own anything, so they can’t owe anything. A big portion of the middle class is $80,000 or more in debt.”
It’s no accident that candidates like Bernie Sanders have risen to the forefront. For decades, people on the left did contortions to avoid being called “liberals.” Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The polls show that enormous sectors of the voting population identify with his description.
In an era where Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #NeverAgain, Fight for 15, and the Poor People’s Campaign are gaining traction, Bernie Sanders is just about the only socialist member of Congress. It’s hard to describe a more profound disconnect between the state and the people.
It’s also hard to describe a more profound disconnect for my generation, the Boomers. Ever since the Kennedys and the McGovern effort, progressives have been in the political wilderness.
With the aid of a corporate-driven security council, the Carter administration thought it would be clever to create a quagmire for the Soviets in Afghanistan. Then they invited the Shah of Iran to take refuge in the United States. It’s been downhill ever since.
The Boomers began their lives with youthful dreams of utopia. We have now spent our adult lives surrounded by Republicans and Republican-like Democrats. For most of my life, the legacy of FDR being prodded by vibrant social movements seemed as distant as Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years’ War.
The centrist Obama offered a brief moment of hope. Occupy and the social movements that erupted during Obama’s time were far more significant. Bernie Sanders opened the door to something real.
Look at the elections this week. Progressives are rising up around the country. Young working-class veterans are joining the fight, coming from a social milieu that doesn’t usually run for office.
These candidates would be getting nowhere without the emerging social movements. These movements are led by people of color and the millennials – the essential ingredients for lasting social change.
Last week, RFK Jr. called for a new investigation of his father’s death, stating that he was now convinced there was a second gunman. His call was joined by his sister, former Maryland, Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
The Kennedy family, for understandable reasons, has historically been reluctant to endanger any more family members by taking a position on this explosive question. Many Americans ask a related question: What’s the point?
On one level, it’s important to know everything we can know. Only then can we move on. On another level, it always comes back to the same thing.
Until a culture is willing to look into its heart of darkness, and grapple with its own weaknesses, nothing much is going to change. The only way to move forward is to face the greatest fears and come to terms with the hardest parts of reality. It’s nothing less than what Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and others call the hero’s journey.
It’s no different than looking at the history of racism or the roots of war. When you look at the life of Bobby Kennedy, there is one distinguishing characteristic – and it’s not his heroic death.
Bobby took the hardest blow that anyone can imagine – the assassination of his brother – and rose up to fight again. His power – his passion – is the heart of his hidden legacy. What Bobby Kennedy offers to all of us is the promise of rebirth.
Bill Simpich is an Oakland attorney who knows that it doesn’t have to be like this. He was part of the legal team chosen by Public Justice as Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2003 for winning a jury verdict of 4.4 million in Judi Bari’s lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland police.