DUST JACKET HYPERBOLE is rarely justified as this: "in trying to make sense of the '60s, Of Kennedys and Kings makes sense for today." So much sense, in fact, that this may be the most important -- because most moving, most discomfiting -- political book of this political year.
The Kennedys here are John and Robert; the Kings, Martin Luther and Coretta Scott, Harris Wofford helped bring them together, first as King's aide and later as Kennedy's, and for a decade bound his life to theirs. Had he chosen to memorialize them merely with anecdotes, Wofford could have written a lively little book. Instead, after serving another decade (1970-78) as president of Bryn Mawr College, he undertook a more searing effort -- to reconsider the Kennedys, Kings and the '60s entirely, seeking to learn how "so much good and so much bad could have happened in one intense time." In doing so, he recreates not only the good and bad, but also the intensity, exposing the process the successor to the '60s: aa national vacuum.
"In this skeptical age, it is hard to acknowledge heroes, and Americans cannot regain their lost innocence," Wofford begins. "In classic drama, however, the hero is not one without great flaws; indeed, he is usually brought down by some combination of those flaws and fate, but out of the fall comes new understanding."
Of Kennedys and Kings reveals great flaws in abundance. The president -- "a sailor, with a seaman's sins and a skipper's skill" -- lacked a constant moral compass, relied on snap judgements, and would not listen if listening meant being bored. Robert Kennedy displayed early savageness, and haunted himself with guilt over government errors and sins. Martin Luther King, grappling with messianism, struggled to keep the devil -- and young millitants -- behind him in his noviolent crusade. The tales are here, unforgettable and chilling, and some as never told before.
But these greatly flawed heroes and their disciples somehow managed in the early '60s to generate a new national mood, a spirit of idealism, sacrifice, commitment, service. That spirit flies out from these pages with incredible force, and shames us, for it is our genie, bottled up by our own hands. If the '60s heroes seem pleasantly familiar to us, the '60s mood and spirit seem musty, redolent of long ago.
It's hard to remember that early in the New Frontier, MPs enforced segregation abainst black GIs at Southern diners. African diplomats were urged to fly from New York to Washington because no blacks were served at Maryland roadhouses. A federal judge -- appointed by JFK at the American Bar Association's urging -- referred in court to voting rights litigants as "a bunch of niggers . . . acting like a bunch of chimpanzees ." This at a time. of the South into a democracy . . . one of the most staggering tasks for statesmanship in the Western world."
And yet, as Wofford shows, by 1968 that "staggering hoses and murders, blacks won the vote and intergrated public facilities. Lyndon Johnson, a Souther president, could say to Congress that without equal rights, "we will have failed as a people and as a nation." He could also say that his administration, "here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty." Before the conflagration a different war, moral words carried moral force.
For a sense of the innocence we've lost, imagine this scene from the birth of the Peace Corps at which Wofford also assisted: "To the surprise and evident plesure of the Ghanaian Minister of Education and other high officials welcoming them at the Accra airport, the first contingent of Peace Corps volunteers expressed their appreciation by singing a song in Twi, the main language of Ghana."
Yet in the same years, the CIA hired mobsters to murder Castro, one of the mobsters may have shared a mistress with the president, and J. Edgar Hoover menaced the Kennedys while trying to destroy the Kings. Rather than dismiss this '60s ugliness as paradox, Wofford delves into it, pulling memories together with fresh evidence to wrest the logic from dark events. He shows, convincingly, that the Kennedys managed to tangle themselves in a web at least partly of their own weaving, a "morass of potential blackmail" that eventually forced Robert Kennedy to transform himself in a manner few thought possible. He would not enlighten the Warren Commission, nor for years challenge Lyndon Johnson openly, because he knew that Johnson and Hoover -- and even the Mafia, his enemies and the CIA"s hirelings -- were privy to "the worst national secret in the history of the United States [the Castro plots], and the most embarrassing personal secret about John Kennedy [the connection with Sam Giancana's mistress]." What he never knew, and had to endure, was whether those secrets had directly or indirectly killed his brother; he had to reach his peace through diferent knowledge, of himself that freed him to act.
The temptation is great to cite a hundred passages from this book; to demonstrate -- rather than merely assert -- that it makes sense of the '60s. But why does of Kennedy and Kings also make sense for today"? Because it not only refuses to let us forget; it makes us want to remember. It takes us back, not to a simpler time, but to a time that seemed to matter more. It makes us wonder if we've shrunk, instead of grown, become too jaded, too cynical, too undemanding and too forgiving of ourselves. Miami and Chatanooga burn, but not as beacons; somehow, in the desolation of the war and the '70s, we've managed to desolate ourselves.
In the John F. Kennedy Library, Wofford notes, there is a 1962 statement from a Peace Corps Volunteer: "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked." Wofford has a simple question: What if someone asked again?