Leaving the movie theater after watching the new Emilio Estevez movie "Bobby," you won't be able to help thinking how much grief would have been avoided had Robert F. Kennedy lived beyond that fateful June 6, 1968.
Although I lived far, far away from the events and turned only 16 four days later, I was as involved in the politics of the day as a Catholic private school boy could be. This second Kennedy assassination cast the final pall of pessimism upon my youthful idealism. I cancelled my birthday party as I wondered how the world could be going so wrong.
In the film there's a Czech journalist trying to get an interview with RFK. She has to deal with U.S. provincialism before she drives home the point that her country is undergoing the famous "Prague Spring" under Alexander Dubcek. By August 20, Soviet tanks would bring an early Stalinist frost.
Could things have gone any worse in that fateful 1968 that defined, I thought then, the definitive end of the post-World War II optimism I had grown up with as a child?
Recall the Tet Offensive strikes in the heart of Saigon at the beginning of the year, which proved that the Viet Cong was nowhere near vanquished, as military leaders were telling Congress. The third-party presidential candidacy of George Wallace. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At year's end, the election of Richard Nixon.
Rewind history. Could things have ended up better had Bobby lived?
First off, he would have won the presidential election. Kennedy was still a magic name then. We would have avoided the Nixon presidency and Henry Kissinger would have remained an obscure professor.
Second, Bobby was an effective conciliator and motivator, drawing, like his brother, the best from people from their highest and noblest instincts. It is difficult to believe that such leadership would have yielded ground to mean-spirited conservatism, as happened by 1980. Bobby would have galvanized and reunited the country.
Third, a president as attentive to social disparity as he was wouldn't have allowed the stagnation of wages that occurred following the 1973 oil crisis until the present. Kennedy might have avoided the crisis altogether by bridging differences in the Middle East.
The "Me Decade" of the 1970s might have been the "You Decade" that never came to be. And so on and so forth.
I might have believed more potently in the possibilities of various belief structures, political and religious, to live up to their ideals. I might have become a Catholic priest.
One bullet changed everything. The men who wanted Nixon, who wanted eventually to see in the 1980s a demented president take money from infants to give to the military-industrial complex. Those men won. Those men have been winning so far this century.
Maybe it's time to make Bobby come alive again.