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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A Memory of Journalist Jack Newfield

The day Jack Newfield and I passed ourselves off as rock and roll loving, freeway cruising Los Angelenos was one of those historical days that started at the pitch of happiness and anticipation and ended in a pit. June 4, 1968 was bright and clear. The kind of day New Yorkers cherish, but Los Angelenos take for granted because they have so many just like that. The brilliant weather reflected our mood. Bobby Kennedy was going to win the California primary that Tuesday and go on to win the Democratic nomination. Just a week before we’d suffered the first-ever Kennedy election loss in the Oregon Democratic primary.

That Tuesday was a happy, free day. I’d joined the campaign entourage after my marriage to a staffer a few weeks before, between the Indiana and Nebraska primaries, but didn’t have any assigned duties for the day of the California primary. My new husband had some time between speechwriting tasks and Jack’s column about Bobby’s victory was for later. It was down time. Play time. So my husband and I made sure our party clothes were laid out for after the victory speech and dancing at a hot club called The Factory. Mine was a short one shouldered bright yellow dress in some petroleum product fabric and my husband’s a moss green Nehru suit with some interesting rick-racky-trim on the collar and down the front.

I doubt Jack gave a thought to what he was going to dance in, but he was thinking about celebrating. We three New Yorkers decided to start the fun early by taking on the coloration of the indigenous peoples and spend the day driving around Los Angeles to visit the sights there’d been no time to see while the campaign was in high dudgeon. You can’t see the stars on the Walk of Stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, if your eyes are on your candidate and enthusiastic supporters are in the way! And you can’t tool around L.A. in a convertible with your hair streaming in the breeze without some help, if you are a man who grew up in Bed-Sty and said he was like the Number 4 Train, not a sports car, because he never drove a car in his 66 years. My Upper Westside Manhattan bred then-husband was a driver newly licensed by the State of New York, but inexperienced. As a suburban to urban transplant, I was the designated driver happy to help those two play for a day.

We got in my rental car outside the Ambassador Hotel and cranked up the radio. “Angel of the Morning” by Dusty Springfield and some bubble-gum rock song with lyrics of “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve Got Love In My Tummy’ blared. We sang along. We oohed at the Pacific Ocean. Stopped for some food and fuel and between verses and mouthfuls of food hashed over the primaries past, the possible strategies of the other Democratic candidates Senator Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. We seriously considered who our New York Senator would pick for his cabinet officers when he moved into the White House come January 1969. With a mandate from American voters we trusted that Bobby’s first item on his agenda would be making the Vietnam War history and bringing our boys come from Southeast Asia. After all, Bobby had driven Lyndon Johnson from the Presidency. Was getting out of Vietnam quickly unthinkable? No. The Robert Francis Kennedy Presidential train was in the station and it was unstoppable!

Except, of course, by Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet. In too few hours after the sun set over the Pacific that night, my husband and I were back in that rental car. The writer of speeches - and eulogies – Ted Sorenson joined our shellshocked vehicle. We’d thrown trench coats over our garish party clothes and stopped and started our way to the hospital where they’d taken the dying senator.

We all have the images of those next few days in our heads. The coffin. The funeral. The grieving. And the train from Pennsylvania Station in New York to Washington, DC. Over the years as the news footage of that week plays, I always remember that just a few days before with Jack Newfield in the sunshine of California and a political season we’d made detailed plans to be part of a metaphoric train, not the funeral kind. Jack wrote elegantly over the decades in his biography of Robert F. Kennedy and other political work what our country and the world missed.

Now with Jack’s death we are keenly aware of another voice of ferocity and justice gone.


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