TIME magazine cover
by Roy Lichtenstein













Question: How is Robert Kennedy like Thomas Hobbes’ description of man’s life in a state of nature?

Answer: They’re both nasty, brutish, and short.

I forget which Washington wag said that. Doesn’t matter. I won’t glorify Bobby as you acknowledge Jimmy did the Panthers (You were honest to reveal something I didn’t know.) We did not need a saint for President. A bunch of idealistic college kids tramping around New Hampshire in the snow didn’t make Gene McCarthy a good presidential candidate, but they accomplished what we wanted: to prove to the nation that the only people Lyndon Johnson had behind him were the Party apparatchiks.

Bobby called me three days after New Hampshire.

“What should I do, Lou?”

I was organizing California for McCarthy at the time; Bobby knew that, that’s why he called. He needed McCarthy’s best organizers. I don’t pretend we were personal friends or that I was some kind of king-maker. We met at small, influential dinners in Washington, sometimes at Bobby’s home. I dreamed, I admit, of a Cabinet post in a Robert Kennedy Administration. No matter. He knew in my heart I was loyal, waiting for him to call, supporting McCarthy until the real thing came along.

“Bobby,” I said, “Join the race and I’ll serve you up California on a silver platter.”

[pause in tape]

Fuck your pieties. You can’t wait to quote the famous “When Lou Rosen gives you his solemn promise, check the warranty.” That was nothing compared to what they called Bobby when he announced he’d run for the nomination after waffling so long: “A coward come down from the hills to shoot the wounded. A man who did something few public men have ever been able to do: confirm the worst his enemies have ever said about him.” And that from a liberal columnist who came to regret it.

Of course I switched to Bobby’s side. What fool’s paradise do you think we live in? Only suckers don’t change horses in midstream.

I am tired, tired, of correcting your errors, particularly of omission, tired of this hotel room, tired of existence. No matter. You have to understand the total disaster of June 5, 1968, the abyss into which Bobby’s murder plunged us, and what that crisis made us do.

RFK was a phenomenon and I’m not talking Hollywood, but philosophical, which you employ so fondly and to occasional effect. He was what we saw him to be. Who wrote that Bobby offered “the illusion of dissent without its substance”? Bob Scheer. YES, Bob, that was the brilliance of it all. The illusion that could have saved us from the New Left, the ghetto riots, the endless war, the smarmy barbarity of Richard Nixon. Kennedy was an empty vessel to be filled, not by Party hacks and bosses but by our most passionate hopes. Our act of believing that he could change the world would - in itself - have brought radicals, women, the working class, blacks, latinos, together in progressive harmony. I know it.

Or at least got us over the hump until it didn’t matter any more.

You should have ridden in the car behind him on that motorcade through the East LA barrio. They worshiped, they adulated, they screamed, held their babies up to be blessed, they wept with joy, they saw visions; it was like riding through Buenos Aires in a cavalcade with Juan Perón. Did you ever achieve that, you movement people, you ‘revolutionaries’? And all he had to do was hold a hearing on the rights of farm workers and put his arm around Cesar Chavez. People were consummated into power by his touch; I know I was. I’m sure Cesar felt the same; Bobby was Lourdes to the politically crippled, the underdog, handicapped, outcast.

I will not allow you to dismiss him with that crack about his tan and his desolate grin. So cheap. You don’t even bother to attack him. I’ll attack him. I’ll use the very calumny his enemies employed.

He was vengeful, ruthless, a street fighter.

Is that not what you sought in a leader? Was the black community not vengeful for the state of terror it lived in, the legacy of slavery, unending racist white rule? What else were the riots about after Martin’s murder? Did you treat the presidents of the campuses you occupied with mercy, pity, and compassion, or with ruthlessness? And streetfighter? That was your highest accolade. Self-accolade.

He was vindictive, calculating, rude.

Vindictive barely registers how you felt about Lyndon Johnson or the labor leaders who sold you out and beat up peace marchers, or the FBI. Calculating encapsulates the essence of the political process. And rude, please. I recall when President Greyson Kirk returned to Columbia University after your occupying forces withdrew, surveyed the desecration of his office and cried, “how could human beings do a thing like this?”

Robert Kennedy was impatient and angry, as were you. He was offensive, militant, aggressive, driven, distressed, vulnerable. Does that not describe your protagonist, Jimmy O’Shea, or any of a thousand New Leftists you admire: Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Abbey Hoffman, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Wasn’t ‘militant’ your badge of honor?

So he was rich, a fanatical Catholic, had a voice like a cracked cornet. He ran a campaign Mao Tse-Tung would have been proud of. Hubert Humphrey held the party bosses and Gene McCarthy the anti-war students. That left the peasantry — blacks, latinos, women, Indians, farmworkers, blue-collar Joes — through which he moved indeed like a fish through the sea, illuminating them with a vision of power, vindication, redress, telling each what they wanted to hear. You think being all things to all people is sinful, while you excoriate the bourgeoisie for being all things to some people: the rich, white, and corporate. He told black people they were oppressed and their anger justified; he told whites he’d crack down on blacks for feeling that way. That’s how politics is done, man. You want the president to be president of all the people. If the people hate each other, he's still their president.

Who cares what he was before? Who cares he served Joe McCarthy (the Captain Queeg of anticommunism), persecuted trade unions, gave Hoover free rein to destroy Martin Luther King, ran a presidential Murder Inc. in Latin America? This is America. We come here to change our pasts. Kennedy would have made us all what we wanted to be. Everyone felt that way. And he in turn, unique, sole among politicans anywhere, what did he do? He turned to us, the American people and appealed in that most ‘Sixties’ way of all: Make me real! Make me live! Make me authentic!

He was a better Man of the Sixties than you. Not his fault if the peasants endowed him with supernatural powers. Charisma means the gift and St. Paul said the greatest charisma was love. You, who raise the “black community,” whatever that is, to the stature of blessédness, remember: Kennedy was received there with rapture. To those who understood reason he spoke in the terms of reason, and to those who did not, he spoke with gesture and sentiment.

It worked.

Until a few minutes after midnight on June 6, 1968 in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel.

[tape turned off and back on]

Then there was no one. NO ONE. To save us. No one knew what lay on the other side of the abyss and there was no one to guide us across. John Updike wept, “God has withdrawn his hand from America.” The two men who could have dealt with, defanged, accomodated, remolded the radical Left and brought it back into America — Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy — were dead. I lost track of space and time; somewhere in New Jersey I looked out the window of the funeral train carrying his coffin from New York to Washington; I saw an old black woman by the tracks holding a handmade sign: WE HAVE LOST OUR LAST HOPE.

You turned your backs. You, the best and brightest (I acknowledge all the ironies of that phrase) of our generation, the most passionate, thoughtful, radical (and I mean it the way you meant it, “to the root of things”), committed, inventive, creative (the music alone), a generation that put its body on the line against segregation and war, you turned your back on him. With you on his side, he would have taken far more than 46% of California’s votes against McCarthy’s 42%. He would have swept the state in triumph, cowed the party hacks, and somehow, I really believe this, lived. It would have changed something, anything, delaying his appearance in the ballroom by a minute, adding another two people to those in the pantry, all we needed was a second of timing, an arm, a shoulder where there wasn’t one, a friend tugging on his coat at the moment he would have moved, a familiar voice calling his name that would make him turn his head, another pair of eyes to see the glint of metal in that hand, and Sirhan Sirhan might have fired those bullets, but none would have found their way into Bobby’s brain. You turned your backs, you were not there. Damn you.

No one dared say it, but everyone in Washington knew: there’s no one in charge of the country. A total leadership vacuum at the heights of the most powerful country in the world. With some smarts, some strategy, a little less revolutionary romanticism, a sharper eye for power, the New Left could have walked in and taken over. That’s what we thought. I do not exaggerate. You didn’t know. But we didn’t know you didn’t know.

Hence, an inexorable chain of coincidence, you heard me, ineluctable coincidence, no less impossible or certain than those that killed Our Last Hope, drew us toward that calamity between Jimmy and the CIA which I assume is the subject of the next Fart, I mean Part, of your whateveritis. But before you sully me further with inattention, I will go on record, my own private record. I will answer the questions, why the CIA? and why Jimmy? Because you don’t know, do you?

The CIA. I have some marginal notes here. Not every OSS veteran who came out of World War II enlisted in the Cold one. Walter O’Shea did not; he’d had enough of wars hot, cold, and tepid, which helps explain his son’s nonchalance toward authority. All of a sudden there was postwar prosperity, money to send kids to college, negroes, immigrants, many the first in their families. I was one. A time of exploration, passion. Kids entered as poets, came out engineers; enrolled in hotel school, became literary figures. Farmers’ sons graduated as politicians. American kids: naive, earnest, idealistic, no match in the political arena for cunning red diaper babies trained in Little Red Schoolhouses.

Every civilized nation in the Fifties had a national student organization except the United States because Americans were scared shitless of their young — think Rebel Without a Cause. No respectable liberal wanted to fund young people: “Suppose they turn out left-wing?” Ok, why not ask Congress to fund a national student organization? Because, that’s what we were attacking Russia for, that’s what we were attacking East Germany for, putting up brush-cut 40-year-old “student” leaders to take over the international student groups after the war. Americans are suspicious of government funding and for good reason. Suppose in a burst of misplaced idealism, the Berkeley branch of this congressionally-funded National Student Association dared question the testing of nuclear weapons. I can hear Strom Thurmond wailing: “What the Hail is goin on heah? We’all financin comminist agitators on the gummint payroll. Ah call for an immejut end to this commie trainin at taxpayah’s expense.” Congress would cut the students off without a cent and everyone scream censorship. We couldn’t risk that.

Instead, we came up with a magnificent solution that worked like a charm for almost 20 years. The National Student Association was funded, nurtured, nursed, guided covertly by the CIA. Oh shame, shame. Fuck you. I have nothing to hide. Who else was going to do it?

The leaders of the NSA knew where the money came from; most of them joined the intelligence community later on. The rank and file did not know and this raises the question of free will. They were supposed to think it was their own organization, acting freely in their interest. And so long as they thought so, it was. The question of freedom never came up. Debate on issues took place; NSA leaders encouraged certain options, tabled others. A guided democracy; no one thought they were working for the government, therefore, they were not. Covert funding gave them the illusion of free will, and therefore actual free will. They had “the power of doing what they choose” (Voltaire).

You say (I can hear you), how could a violent, clandestine agency like the CIA create a democratic organization? The answer is simple: there were two wings of the CIA, practically two organizations. By the end of the Kennedy Administration, we were one schizophrenic organization with a Good Wing and a Bad one. We in the Good Wing did not run Operation Mongoose, nor the Bay of Pigs, any of that. We funded your hero Franz Fanon, for chrissake; I don’t hear any complaints.

Do you know grief? Can you imagine the work of 20 years, not just the NSA, everything, blasted in a single day by a single article in a single San Francisco Catholic lay magazine, Ramparts, run by an eccentric with a black eyepatch, bankrolled by a scion of U.S. Gypsum. One article, a few thousand words, and the enlightened, liberal wing of the CIA was fed to the shredder.

A “CIA plot” to end the war? Of course there was, and you people wrecked it. Irony on irony on irony till death.


That’s when they called in James Jesus Angleton, whispering jesus, the man who could see the Ding an Sich, the thing-in-itself, the noumenal world of terror of which paranoia is but the visible sign, for which communism was merely a front, the manifestation of deeper forces, Chaos itself. He brought in The Mechanic, Richard Ober, who set up shop in shielded vaults in the basement at Langley, the Special Operations Group, the SOG about which your character Stew is so incoherently eloquent. This operation, which, as Stew said, was not the MACV SOG that was on his case, but the SOG that was on your case, Jimmy’s, Cathy’s: MHCHAOS, hidden from the press, the Congress, the CIA itself. How clandestine was it? Its computers were disconnected from the outside world, linked only to the desk of Richard Ober. They put San Francisco under a microscope, not a phone untapped.

To be fair, some of the disaster was our fault. Half the Good Wing was in love with LSD, dosed itself like Yippies. It’s true that Cord Meyer’s wife turned on much of Washington, including JFK. She was murdered after JFK’s assassination and her diary spirited away by Angleton (I know no more).

The Good Wing was your best friend. Best friend! Not only were we fully aware you were not run by foreigners and communists (why do you think we hated you? You were our own, our native sons) but we knew we could never win in Vietnam. It cut out my heart to see what happened to those NSA kids after the exposé. They cried at being “used,” said they’d never engage in political activity again. A drear mood of meaninglessness invaded them, all the idealism ripped from their souls. The most respectable activists of your generation and you reduced them to the status of “CIA dupes.”

Not to mention the FBI was on our tail for supporting “communist anti-war activities.” They didn’t care what kind of communist we were. Maybe the joke is funny.

Why pick Jimmy? He was partly a target of opportunity, for reasons I’ll get to. He was no Tom Hayden, no Stokely Carmichael, no Dave Dellinger, no Abbie Hoffman. If they were the generals, he was a colonel, maybe a major. But if we could destroy him, we could destroy anyone like him, and those like him were the heart of the movement, the people who got things done, not at the national meetings but on the ground, where loyalties are formed, leaflets written, the world explained one-on-one. I met a young woman who interviewed Jimmy for her Catholic college newspaper; she left the room a radical; his answers changed her life. And Jimmy was not unique, I wish he had been. Cathy, Hank, all of them, in the streets, on campus, Wilhelm, in coffeeshops, bars, the white Appalachian kids of Rising Up Angry in Chicago, black and white GIs inside the Army, that’s where the knots of loyalty were tied.

The beauty part was to do to you what you did to the National Student Association in the very way you did it.

We didn’t invent the snitch jacket; we gave it a fine sophisticated turn, in the manner of Walsingham, the dancing master of spydom who brought down Christopher Marlowe no less, not that terminating Elizabethan England’s second-best poet with extreme unction is something to brag about, though Walsingham did, I’m sure; he was the James Jesus Angleton of his time. Ours was not the brute force manner of J. Edgar Hoover who used the snitch jacket like a lead pipe. We wanted to demoralize, not kill. We thought of our plan as a solvent to eat away the sinews of the New Left, in short, to borrow another term from chemistry, a neutralizing agent.

Anyone like Jimmy would do. But how perfect! A father formerly in the OSS, a best friend with a numbered account in the same offshore bank as Operation Mongoose, Jimmy recently fired from his job at the auto shop. And up there in North Beach, overlooking the Bay, Ramparts magazine chomping at the bit to expose, expose, expose — jesuits hot on the money trail.

Anyway, he brought it on himself. Twenty-thousand Bostonians cheered when he called for revolution. “Destroy the racist status quo, Risk your lives, Only we can destroy it” etc etc. As he spoke 120 cities were in flames. That could not be allowed to continue. It was one thing for blacks, Stokely, Rap Brown, to say such things, but not a white man, not someone I admired.

So, if Ramparts could destroy the political lives of innocent people by exposing them as CIA agents, so could we. Shoe on the other foot. We were desperate.

You make a cunning effort in Part Four to minimize our plan by shifting the point of view from Jimmy to Cathy, anticipating our attempt to snitch-jacket Jimmy, and thereby render it irrelevant. You can’t do that. This is not Cathy’s story. This is Jimmy’s and my story.

[pause, breathing]

There was this awful quality about you all. You were “making the revolution” and having fun. And I don’t accept your rivalries, jealousies, identity crises, poor Jimmy who couldn’t get two women to share him, as “suffering.” While we, the responsible ones with bewildered wives and resentful children, met with men we didn’t like to get done what could be done, holding our desires in all the time, as one holds in his paunch at a cocktail party, we the ungallant, carving the real joints of the political world, engratiating ourselves to Party bosses’ wives and brothers, remembering names. Jimmy and JFK may have fucked in bathrooms. I never did.

[silence, faint background sounds]

I was a great speaker, did you know that? Better than Bobby and his Harvard writers, better than Jimmy. We spoke to different crowds. I addressed the young men who stayed in Minneapolis, did not flee to the Coasts, wore ties, studied Poli Sci and E.E., and were no less thoughtful, no less moral, no less angry at a war without end. I moved them to tears without demanding they renounce their careers, their futures, their chances for personal advancement. They did not want too much, as you did, only what was their due, a step above their parents’ state, a professorship, a government position, a managerial post. They were not rich, they were not doomed. They were self-endowed and cautious. Theirs was the America of law and order, friends, picket fences, home improvements, family ties. The real world.

But I have learned one fact from your book I wish I knew then. If I’d known that Jimmy went underground in the apartment of Lester Krup, of all people, things might have taken a much different path.