Journalist Bruce Macgowan remembers…
It was in the spring of 1968, not long after Eugene McCarthy had nearly beaten LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, and just days before Martin Luther King was killed while trying to help some striking Garbage collectors in Memphis. The war in Vietnam was raging at its peak, and the opposition to it had grown more vocal and effective. Richard Nixon was the favorite to win the Republican nomination, and he campaigned with the pledge of a secret plan “to end the war in Vietnam with honor.” (Needless to say, he reneged on that promise and gave us four more years of a horrible war that further divided the country!) Robert Kennedy was being urged to run, and had either recently made his decision to enter the fray, or was just about to do so. On this occaision however, he was visiting the home of the local chairman of the Democratic Party and appearing on behalf of a new and important figure on the labor front:
United Farm Workers’ leader Cesar Chavez.
RFK had become quite popular in the last few years since his brother’s death, as he was perceived as a champion of the downtrodden and the underdog. I wanted to meet him, and asked my parents if there was any way I could go to the event, which was to take place at a neighbors house just a few hundred yards up the road from where we lived in Tiburon. My mom was nice enough to arrange for me to help out setting up tables for the fundraising dinner that would be held, as she was friends with Jen Sperry, who was a prominent local fundraiser for the Dems. I was also assured that I would have a chance to meet Kennedy personally, along with several other 15 and 16 year old high school kids that I would be working with. My little sister Becky (now Becky Steere, who along with her husband owns the Sweetwater Station in Larkspur), was about 10 years old at the time and really wanted to go to the event as well, but my mom said that no little kids were going to be there as this was an “adult’ event. Undeterred however, Becky snuck away from home and went the hill in an effort to at least catch a glimpse of the famous man.
We were all gathered in a wide driveway at the house where the dinner was to be held when Kennedy’s limo suddenly appeared. It proceeded to stop just in front of a crowd of several hundred people, and out popped Robert Kennedy, wearing a dark blue suit, but looking casual with an open necked shirt. I remember the famous Kennedy grin and the crowds feet that appeared at the corners of his eyes when he grinned. He had a tan and his hair was flecked with gray.
“Hi ya, how are ya? Hello…” he said, reaching out and enthusiastically pumping peoples hands as he strode slow forward toward the house.
The crowd was clearly excited to see him, but I don’t remember much clamoring or shouting. There were a few enthusiastic hoots and claps, but generally, everyone was on their best behavior. I was pretty much in the middle of things, when I noticed this little girl with bright plait straw-colored hill watching with big eyes at the edge of the crowd. It was my little sister Becky who had been told to stay home! At first I was kind of upset with her, but then I saw how much it meant for her to see this famous man in person. Like his brother, the late president,
Kennedy was by this time a mythical figure who had this magneticism about him. But now amazingly, Kennedy, as if almost if being drawn toward the edge of the crowd, waded through the folks and walked right up to my little sister, clearly the only kid around, and said in that wonderful New England accent of his: “Hello there,, what’s your name?” my sister softly replied: “Becky,” and Kennedy proceeded to further stun her and delight the crowd around him by replying: My what pretty hair you have!” He gave Becky a firm handshake and kind of ruffled her hair in a friendly manner, and it seemed like more than a few seconds before he actually released her hand. I think he probably saw it as a good photo op, although that’s perhaps the cynic in me speaking! Anyway, Becky later told me that after her brief encounter with RFK, she ran home breathlessly, and immediately told my mom what had happened. She proceeded to wash her hands and then saved the water in a plastic bottle, putting a label on it that said “Kennedy Water.”
I later got to shake Kennedy’s hand, met Cesar Chavez, watched the two men answer questions during a brief news conference before the dinner, and learned much more about the United Farm Workers Union. Kennedy was clearly relaxed and comfortable with the crowd, and spent a little over an hour talking with members of the party, answering questions about his impending candidacy, and signing autographs. I think I still have the program from the that event somewhere, with his scrawl no doubt still on it. (Isn’t it strange how so often famous people’s handwriting is practically illegible?) Anyway, I went home that night with a distinct impression of the man, and it certainly wasn’t far from the idea I had previously formed about the man. As I said, I was only 15 or 16 years old at the time, the real world of politics and Vietnam and other important matters was just becoming really important to me, and I was starting to become enthusiastic about RFK’s chances to win the nomination.
Unfortunately as we know, Kennedy was suddenly struck down a few months later, killed by a sad young, disaffected man from Jordan, who’s name is not even worth mentioning. The fact that his assassination came on the night of his greatest triumph (the California primary) made his passing that much more bitter and painful. Most historians are still convinced that had Kennedy lived, he would have united the party, that there wouldn’t have been terrible riots that tore apart the Democratic Convention in Chicago and almost mortally wounded the party, we would have probably been out of Vietnam by the end of 1969 or early 1970 at the latest, and we never would have gone through the cynical and disillusioning experience of Watergate. But then, we’ll never know for certain, will we? It’s one of those great ifs of American history. I only know that on warm spring evening over 40 years ago, my sister and I briefly crossed paths, right in our own neighborhood, with a man who might of by his actions, changed the course of our country’s history. That memory will remain with me always! — Bruce Macgowan, from a post in the MarinNostalgia Forum, May 24, 2008.
If you have any photos from this event, please email in a copy for display on this page and state how you’d like the photos credited!