Volume 19, Number 3 | June 2-8, 2006

Downtown Notebook

Remembering R.F.K. and some uncomfortable questions in ’68

By Bonnie Rosenstock

On June 5, 1968 — 38 years ago — Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. The day before, he had won the California and South Dakota Democratic presidential primaries.

The phone call came while I was at college. My mother gave me the message, somewhat perplexed.

“Ethel Kennedy called you. She wants to speak to you about something. She’ll call back.”

My heart raced and leapt out of my body. I couldn’t speak, and I must have turned a coronary-attack red.

“What does she want with you?” she asked suspiciously. I don’t know what I mumbled in reply, but I knew what it was about. The letter.

Much to my parents’ chagrin and disapproval, I was an ardent volunteer on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1964 senatorial campaign against the popular Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating. My parents, who were lifelong Democrats, didn’t much like the Kennedy bunch for the same reason that prompted Mrs. Robert Kennedy’s call to me. It had nothing to do with the headline-grabbing carpetbagger polemic. It was an impassioned issue that spanned a generation.

The Kennedy for Senator main headquarters was located on E. 42nd St. in Manhattan. I was a history and political science major at the City College of New York on W. 135th St. The Kennedy vision had tapped into my ideals, as it had for many of my generation and certainly for the students at the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” C.C.N.Y.’s then nickname. So at every opportunity M, my classmate and childhood friend, and I made the trek from Harlem or our East Bronx neighborhood to work on the campaign, which meant stuffing envelopes, licking stamps and acting as gofers.

We were also tapped to accompany the advance team to hand out fliers announcing Robert Kennedy’s impending appearance in a neighborhood. In the black neighborhoods the crowds were large and enthusiastic. They surrounded our cars, climbed onto the hoods and pressed their bodies against the windshield and four windows, almost cutting off our air supply. It was frightening, but friendly.

But more frightening and less friendly was the response on the Lower East Side. At that time the Lower East Side was still very much a Jewish ghetto, consisting of a disproportionate number of low-income elderly whose upwardly mobile children were leaving or had already left for better New York City neighborhoods or the suburbs. Those left behind were Holocaust survivors, relatives of those who did not survive or Jews who had lived through the Depression and both world wars on this side of the ocean. When we two fresh-faced Jewish college girls handed them fliers, they readily took them and returned our smiles. However, their faces changed to frowns of disgust when they read what and for whom it was about. Then the volley of invective flowed from their frail, gray-haired souls.

“You supporting the son of this anti-Semitic son of a bitch. Like father, like son. It’s a shunda [disgrace],” they said in a mixture of English and Yiddish, as they grabbed the remaining papers from our hands and tore them up into angry little pieces.

We were shaken. Any one of these seniors could have been one of our grandparents. I had heard similar angry words from my parents about Joseph P. Kennedy, but we tacitly agreed not to talk about it anymore. He had been ambassador to

Great Britain from 1937 to 1940. He resigned, convinced that Britain was destined to be conquered by the Nazis. He advocated isolationism and appeasement, and was accused of being anti-Semitic. But here it was, in my face and screaming at me. What to do?

M, whose father and stepmother were Holocaust survivors, and I decided to write a letter to Steven Smith, R.F.K.’s campaign manager and husband of his sister, Jean, and recount what had happened and how it had affected us as Jews. Since Smith wasn’t in his second-floor office, we slipped the letter under the locked door.

Hence, a few days later Mrs. Robert Kennedy called my home. She called the next day as well, but I was also at school. There was no third try. So it was with extreme trepidation that I appeared at campaign headquarters a few days later. A cheerful matronly woman named Nan, who was head of volunteers, approached me. She told me the Kennedys had been making inquiries about me. She assured them I was a dedicated, hard-working volunteer and seemed to be trustworthy, sane and credible.

“Does Mrs. Kennedy still want to talk to me?” I inquired timidly.

“No,” she replied. “She’s very pregnant and is not available anymore.” Both relief and disappointment swept over me. Back to stuffing envelopes and replying to the avalanche of thank you letters to well-wishers on the manual typewriter, one letter at a time.

A few weeks later William F. Haddad was appointed R.F.K.’s special liaison to the Jewish community. He had very impressive credentials. He was on the board of governors of the American Jewish Congress and on the board of directors of the New York Urban Coalition. He was also a former award-winning journalist, political advisor on past political campaigns and had been associate director of the Peace Corps in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy. And, he was Jewish.

To be sure, many more influential voices than ours were raised on this hot-button issue, but I was impressed and touched that the Kennedys had attempted to reach out to us. Of course, Robert F. Kennedy went on to win the New York senatorial election handily, 54.5 percent to Keatings’s 45.5 percent.

However, a post-election analysis in the New York Times on Wed. Nov. 4 noted, “Kennedy ran strongly in New York City, but not as strongly as some Democratic candidates in the past. He ran into trouble with Jewish voters in election districts with heavy Jewish populations.” Keating drew 39.8 percent in those same districts — six years before he had received only 30.8 percent in the same districts — and Lyndon B. Johnson garnered 1 million more votes than Kennedy statewide. Needless to say, neither Kennedy nor his wife were eligible to vote because they had lived in the state only since the first of October.


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