Robert Kennedy Remembered by Jean Baudrillard
K is eating a banana. He says to me, "There is no end in the
sense that God is dead, or history is dead. I would prefer not to
play the role of a thoroughly useless prophet. I leave that to
others, like Gene McCarthy."
He chews the banana with small sharp teeth. Then says:
"Catastrophe is overrated and ironic. We now have a horizontal era
of events without consequences. The end of the world is rehearsed,
then televised repeatedly; in this way, it never arrives.
"History, politics, society, ideology—they will continue to
unfold tediously, like nails growing after death.
"But cheer up. If there is no longer a future, there is no longer
an end either."
He finishes off the banana. "If you were to see written on a door
panel, 'This opens onto the void,' wouldn't you still want to open
K Tosses the Faux Existentialist and the Philosopher
K enters the room, still clasping the book. He tosses the Mailer
essay on the desk and picks up the new book by Derrida, tosses that
too. His graying, ginger hair laps over his earlobes, and his tie is
askew. Fresh lines are carved into his narrow face, in his brow,
around his icy blue eyes, near his mobile mouth.
K picks up the Derrida again and reads to no one in particular,
in an unmusical monotone,
when I am not dreaming of making love, or being a resistance
fighter in the last war blowing up bridges or trains, I want one
thing only, and that is to lose myself in the orchestra I would form
with my sons, heal, bless and seduce the whole world by playing
divinely with my sons, produce with them the world's ecstasy, their
creation. I will accept dying if dying is to sink slowly, yes, into
the bottom of this beloved music.
K is crying. We leave him there in the hotel room, and gently
close the door.
He is neatly dressed in a manner that does not call attention to
itself. The suits are soberly cut and in dark colors. He must at all
times present an aspect of freshness difficult to sustain because of
frequent movements from place to place under conditions which are
not always the most favorable. Thus he changes clothes frequently,
especially shirts. In the course of a day he changes his shirt many
times. There are always extra shirts about, in boxes. "Which of you
has the shirts?"
K Beside Himself
K is being pressed on the program with Tom Wicker of the Times.
K replies in a soft, weary voice, "No matter what I do, I am in
difficulty…I don't know what I can do except perhaps get off the
earth in some way."
Wicker re-engages, and Martin Agronsky jumps in, hectoring K on
the war. K's face contorts into a hard mask, then softens as he
says, "We're going in there and we're killing women, we're killing
children, we're killing innocent children because we don't want to
have the war fought on American soil, or because they're 12,000
miles away, and they might get to be 11,000 miles away. Do we have
the right, here in the United States, to say we're going to kill
tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have, millions of
people refugees, killing women and children, as we have?"
K stammers, "I think we are going to have a difficult time
explaining that to ourselves…."
He is beside himself now. "I think the picture in the paper of a
child drowning should trouble us more than it does, or the picture
last week of a paratrooper holding a rifle to a woman's head—it must
trouble us more than it does…"
He Throws the Morning Newspaper Out the Window
K picks up the paper and rips it in half, throwing it out an open
window in his suite. We are in Kansas and his speech has been
panned. He calls for a glass of water. He drinks the water and
tosses the glass out the window.
At ten in the morning the day before he had said, "I come here,
to this serious forum in the heart of the nation, to discuss this
war with you; not on the basis of emotion, but fact; not, I hope, in
clichés, but with a clear and discriminating sense of where the
national interest really lies.
"I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be
more Americans killed; more of a our treasure spilled out; and
because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more
hundreds of thousands slaughtered, so that they may say, as Tacitus
said of Rome, 'They made a desert, and called it peace.'
"Let us clearly understand the full implications of our
situation. The point of our pacification operations was always
described as "winning the hearts and minds of the people." We
recognized that their minds would have to be changed—that in the
countryside the natural inclination of the people would be to
support the insurgency rather than to sacrifice for foreign white
men, or the remote government in the capitol. And it is this effort
that has been set back in the last month. We cannot change the minds
of the people in the villages controlled by the enemy. The fact is,
as all recognize, we cannot reassert control of those villages now
in enemy hands without repeating the whole process of bloody
destruction which has ravaged the countryside throughout these last
three years. Nor could we thus keep control without the presence of
millions of American troops.
"The front pages of our newspapers show photographs of American
soldiers torturing prisoners. Every night we watch horrors on the
evening news. Violence spreads inexorably across the nation, filling
our streets and crippling our lives. And whatever the costs to us,
let us think of the young men we have sent there: not just the
killed, but those who have to kill; not just the maimed, but also
those who must look upon the results of what they do.
"So I come here to the great university to ask for your help. You
young people are the ones who have the least ties to the present and
the greatest ties to the future. I urge you to learn the harsh facts
that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which we have
concealed our true circumstances even from ourselves.
"Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies, but
above all from our own misguided policies…."
K is laughing at dinner. Once again he has no money and an aide
picks up the check. K stares at the waiter who makes off with a
scrap of paper K has signed.
K and the Greeks
K is explaining Socrates to us, and the Greeks. Socrates
practices fearless speech, K is saying, and thinks of philosophy as
a preparation for death. The Socratic vocation is all about death,
it is life as a kind of dying—to self, to fame and fortune, to the
twisted desires of the flesh, the body with its cravings. You have
to die to all that in order to live. It is true, as Aeschylus says,
that great spirits meet calamity greatly. For this, one must
The problem with Socrates, however, is that he does not cry in
Someone get me my notebook, K says. Write this down: "Take heart.
Suffering, when it climbs highest, lasts but a little time."
K cradles his head in his hands. Get them out of here, he says to
He reaches for a scrap of paper on his desk that belonged to his
brother. On the paper are several illegible words, circled.
K intones, "But sometimes in the middle of the night their wound
would open afresh. And suddenly awakened, they would finger its
painful edges, they would recover their suffering anew and with it
the stricken face of their love."
With his Friends Joking about Gandhi
Cesar is joking with K in his hotel room about Gandhi and King.
They did it for the people, Cesar is saying, that's how it has to be
done, for a purpose. People lose sight of the basics: Gandhi was one
of the best fundraisers the world has ever seen! K roars at this,
his head thrown back in joy. But people don't see it that way, Cesar
says, they don't.
Cesar says, "One millionaire friend of Gandhi's used to complain,
"It costs me millions to keep Gandhi poor!"
K says, Gandhi's secretary was once asked by some Westerners who
came idolizing Gandhi, "Oh, how is it to live with Gandhi?"
K leans into us until his lean face is almost in our chests. "And
his secretary says, 'To live with Gandhi is like living in the mouth
of a lion."
K laughs, a short staccato laugh, a laugh like a machine gun.
K in the Shower
K is in the shower when an urgent phone call comes for him. He
stumbles out of the shower, his hair askew, soap in his eyes, a
towel around his waist. He gropes toward the phone and announces to
the three people standing in the room, "Make room for the future
leader of the free world."
In Albany for Meetings
K lands in Albany for a series of meetings. No one is there to
greet him. The airport is windblown, deserted, and blanketed with
freshly fallen snow. As K walks off the plane he suddenly waves to
the empty airport, clasping his hands over his head in a boxer's
salute. Then he cracks up.
A Friend Comments on K's Aloneness
"The thing you have to realize about K. is that essentially he's
absolutely alone in the world. There's this terrible loneliness
which prevents people from getting too close to him. Maybe it comes
from something in his childhood, I don't know. But he's very hard to
get to know, and a lot of people who think they know him rather well
don't really know him at all. He says something or does something
that surprises you, and you realize that all along you really didn't
know him at all. "He has surprising facets. I remember once we were
out in a small boat. K. of course was the captain. Some rough
weather came up and we began to head back in. I began worrying about
picking up a landing and I said to him that I didn't think the
anchor would hold, with the wind and all. He just looked at me. Then
he said 'Of course it will hold. That's what it's for."'
K is haunted by dreams. He sees a house suspended between earth
and sky. A specter haunts the house, only visible if one cranes
one's neck to a certain position, which tilts the house sideways.
The specter watches, only watches.
K says, "Well, ghosts are everywhere where there is watching; the
dead cannot watch."
K says, "Ghosts appear because the time is out of joint. We must
listen to hear what they want. How do you address your ghosts?"
K turns to me and says, "Thou art a scholar; speak to it,
K with his Daughter
K is in Montauk, swimming in the North Atlantic. His does the
dead man float, then turns in the ocean to address his daughter, who
has followed him out to sea without her eyeglasses,
Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's-float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
K. enters a large gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, in the Fuller
Building. His entourage includes several ladies and gentlemen. Works
by a geometricist are on show. K. looks at the immense, rather
theoretical paintings. "Well, at least we know he has a ruler." The
group dissolves in laughter. People repeat the remark to one
another, laughing. The artist, who has been standing behind a
dealer, regards K. with hatred.
Martin's been shot and there's a crowd gathered in Indianapolis,
waiting. They haven't heard the news. There is a sea of black faces.
K gasps when he gets the news, and seems to shrink into his black
overcoat. His shirt collar is a size too large for his scrawny neck.
K hunches against the cold wind, still in the black overcoat, and
speaks without notes, directly into the crowd, these words:
"I have bad news for you, for all our fellow citizens, and people
who love justice all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther
King was shot and killed tonight."
King in his last days had been exhausted and beleaguered. He
looked far older than his thirty-nine years. He kept saying, "I'm
tired now, I've been in this thing thirteen years and now I'm really
tired." K knew and heard the voices all around King, voices calling
him "traitor," "stupid," "misleading," "provocative," "communist
dupe," and "Martin Loser King."
K continued, near tears himself, speaking of his former
adversary, now safely dead,
"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for
his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.
"In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United
States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and
what directions we want to move in. For those of you who are
black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were
white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness,
with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction
as a country, with great polarization—black people amongst black,
white people amongst white, filled with hatred for one another.
"Or 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.
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with
hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all
white people, I can only say that I 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. But we have to make an effort in the United
States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these
rather difficult times.
"My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote, 'In our sleep, pain
which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our
despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of
"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years
ago: to tame the savageness of man, and to make gentle the life of
"Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our
country, and for our people."
K cancels all his appearances and withdraws into his hotel room.
He emerges on April 5 to give a speech in Cleveland.
K has sixty days to live.
"This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for
politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly with
you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again
stains our land and every one of our lives.
"It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of violence
are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and
unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings who other
human beings loved and needed. No one—no matter where he lives and
what he does—can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act
of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.
"Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever
created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's
bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil
disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero, and an
uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not
the voice of the people.
"Whenever any American's life is taken by another American
unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in
defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in
passion, in an attack of violence or in response to
violence—whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another has
painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole
nation is degraded.
"'Among free men,' said Abraham Lincoln, 'there can be no
successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take
such an appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.'" Yet
we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our
common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly
accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We
glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it
entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to
acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.
"Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this
much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings
retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove
this sickness from our soul."
His Friend Jack Looks Back
At 1 A.M. on Friday, June 7, 1,000 people already stood in line
along East 51st Street, outside the great Gothic
cathedral. St. Patrick's would open at 5:30 that morning to the
glare of television lights over the light mahogany coffin on its
black steel frame. As I waited my turn to stand vigil, I noticed Tom
Hayden walk away from us and slump back in the shadows. Sitting
alone in an empty pew, tears began to form in his eyes. Tom Hayden,
a revolutionary, an apostate Catholic, a green cap from Havana
sticking out of his pants pocket, weeping for K.
I stood between actor Robert Vaughn and radio personality Barry
Gray. In that moment I learned again just how much historical space
K occupied. Hayden, the personification of the New Left, was crying
somewhere behind me, Barry Gray was holding back his tears and Irish
Joe Crangle, the Democratic leader of Erie County, was off mourning
alone. Paul Gorman, a McCarthy man, was weeping now too, lighting a
candle for K. And me. And the curious, bereft people waiting out on
51st Street all night long. And I thought again of the
quotation from Pascal that Camus invokes at the start of
Resistance, Rebellion and Death: "A man does not show his
greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at
One of the most heartbreaking sights of my life was the view from
the window of K's funeral train, as we traveled through New Jersey
and Maryland. On one side of the railroad tracks, in those small New
Jersey towns, were whole families of working-class whites, holding
American flags, wearing hard hats, and saluting; many were clearly
weeping. On the opposite side of the railroad tracks in the larger
cities of Newark, Philadelphia, and in Washington, D.C., there were
masses of blacks, also weeping. They were already bereft from the
loss of Martin Luther King just eight weeks before. They also stood
at attention and waved farewell. They had the ruined faces of the
Three days before I had got up early and drove around L.A. with
two friends, before the sun came up, and before the polls opened.
What I witnessed was uplifting. I saw poor blacks, elderly blacks,
church-dressed blacks, standing in line to vote. And I saw even
longer lines of Mexican-Americans waiting for their chance to
participate in American democracy, as sound trucks blared in
Spanish: "Today is the day Cesar Chavez asks you to vote for Robert
Kennedy." All my life I have heard the clichés of cynicism and white
superiority: blacks don't vote; Puerto Ricans don't vote; Mexicans
don't vote; the unemployed don't vote. And on this day I had the
experience of seeing this elitist theory disproved. On that day the
voter turnout in Watts and East L.A. was higher than in affluent
white Beverly Hills. Poor people voted when they had somebody to
vote for. They did not vote when they thought neither candidate
would better their living conditions. And they were usually right.
RFK remains the missing chord of American politics: the missing
unifying line between blacks and working class whites. He was the
blue note that touched all the people of no property and no power
regardless of color. It was his absence that allowed the development
of the so-called "Reagan Democrats," the unionized working class
whites who shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party in the
Of course he was far from flawless. There are no perfect human
beings. He was an ambitious politician, not some monk or ivory-tower
academic. He was slow to recognize the moral imperative of the
freedom riders and civil rights community organizers in 1961 and
1962, when he was attorney general. He authorized the wiretap of
Martin Luther King's home. He ran for president in 1968 only after
Eugene McCarthy plunged in and demonstrated how vulnerable LBJ was
and how unpopular the war was becoming. He made his share of
misjudgments and compromises.
But he ignored polls and followed his instincts. He campaigned
for gun control in pro-gun Oregon, knowing it would cost him votes.
I saw him condemn student deferments for the Vietnam War to medical
students in Indiana who had student deferments—because he didn't
approve of the war being fought only by the poor of both races.
There was something liberating in the air during the 1960s that
allowed some of its greatest avatars to keep growing in public and
reinventing themselves, like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali,
the Beatles, and RFK. The velocity of external change during this
decade of tumult seemed to invite and validate authentic interior
Of course, I could be remembering this all wrong, and this all
could be bullshit, but part of K's strength I thought was the way
that he combined thought and action. He understood power in a way
that few did, and he used it for good, mostly. He thought deeply,
but he was also a tireless activist and organizer. He still seemed
to believe in the power of moral outrage as public policy. He felt
that the "unacceptable" had to be changed directly and immediately,
not just deplored in speeches.
Twelve years after he was gone I asked Cesar Chavez, who loved
him, what had made K unique, and so permanently missed by those who
knew him best.
"He crossed a line that no other American politician ever
crossed," the leader for the farm workers' union told me.
When I asked him to elaborate, he spoke about K's intensity of
feeling for the poor, his capacity to create hope and trust, his
authenticity as a human being, despite his fame and wealth. And his
ability to grow and to be changed by experience.
At the Baltimore station, where the train arrived five hours
late, there was a crowd of about 20,000—mostly black. They were
singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," accompanied by a mournful
When we passed Resurrection City, Reverend King's doomed
shantytown of the dispossessed, the crowd sang "We Shall Overcome"
through tears of rage.
Only Robert Kennedy could have united these two injured classes,
trapped on opposite sides of the tracks that still run through the
middle of the American Dream of Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Dr. King.
Oh, I think to myself, what might have been, if history had not
slipped through our fingers.
Now I realize what makes our generation unique, what defines us
apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961, and
those who came after the murderous spring of 1968. We are the first
generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties,
that things were not really getting better, that we shall not
overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had
already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could
produce, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time
forward, things would get worse: our best political leaders were
part of memory now, not hope.
The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone.
And His Friend Arthur
The train arrived in Washington. Night had fallen. Mourners with
twinkling candles followed the coffin into Arlington Cemetery.
"There was," wrote a grieving Lady Bird Johnson, "a great white moon
riding high in the sky." But the cemetery itself was dark and
shadowed. The pallbearers, not sure where to place the coffin,
walked on uncertainly in the night. Averill Harriman finally said to
Stephen Smith, "Steve, do you know where you're going?" Smith said,
"Well, I'm not sure." Then Smith said, "I distinctly heard a voice
coming out of the coffin saying, "Damn it. If you fellows put me
down, I'll show you the way."
One night I ask K, what is the point then?
He answered, "To do harm to stupidity. To push that which wants
K Saved from Drowning
K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword
are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of
the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green
depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of
the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His
right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am
on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock.
K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He
stands now on the bank, gasping. "Thank you."
Note to the Reader
Will the partly true become wholly true through this note to the
reader? Hardly. Nevertheless, alert readers will note the paraphrase
of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's thought in the first
paragraph, and the excerpt from Jacques Derrida's remarkable
Circumfession in the second, published after 1968, the year of
Kennedy's death. More disturbing (in a James Frey-Oprah kind of way)
is the wholesale authorial borrowing (or theft) from Donald
Barthelme's 1968 short story, "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning,"
published in the New American Review in April of that tragic
year, some two months before Kennedy's death, in paragraphs 3, 11,
14, and 20 of the present fable. As one might imagine, Barthelme was
often queried about the origin and timing of his story. Here is what
Donald Barthelme told Kennedy's biographer and friend, Arthur
From "Robert Kennedy And His Times," by Arthur M. Schlesinger,
Jr., paperback edition, pp. 877-8 (footnote)...
"I never met Robert Kennedy nor did I talk to people who had. The
story was begun while I was living in Denmark in 1965...the only
'true' thing in it was Kennedy's remark about the painter. I
happened to be in the gallery when he came in with a group; I think
the artist was Kenneth Noland. Kennedy made the remark quoted about
the ruler—not the newest joke in the world. The story was published
in New American Review well before the assassination. I
cannot account for the concluding impulse of the I-character to
'save' him other than by reference to John Kennedy's death; still, a
second assassination was unthinkable at that time. In sum, any
precision in the piece was the result of watching television and
reading the New York Times" (Barthelme to author, July 16,
The poem in "K With His Daughter" is called "First Lesson," by
Philip Booth from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999
Excerpts from Kennedy's speeches and personal notebooks may be
checked by the fact-checking crowd in such sources as Make Gentle
the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, by
Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, and The Gospel According to RFK: Why it
Matters Now, by Norman MacAfee.
The long section, "His Friend Jack Looks Back" is excerpted from
Jack Newfield's important and lovely book, RFK: A Memoir,
while the widely-quoted story of Steve Smith and the coffin is taken
from the last page of Arthur M. Schlesinger's biography, Robert
Kennedy and his Times.
Gary Percesepe is Dean of the McMaster School for Advancing
Humanity at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio.