The boy was 11 years old and had never seen a man in the middle of winter with a suntan and such straight teeth in his corner of the United States, the small towns baked into the impoverished hills of eastern Kentucky.
But here was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in February of 1968, in a gray coat and dark, narrow tie, his sandy brown hair falling over his forehead. The senator stood on the steps of the Letcher County courthouse, a horde of citizens gazing in wonder at him and the ungainly caravan of reporters documenting his every step in those days when everyone expected him to announce his candidacy for president.
“I stood really close to him — I was able to do that — and that was the first time I’d seen someone with a suntan in winter,” Benjamin Gish, now 61, said 50 years later. “I asked my mom how was that possible? And she said, ‘Only wealthy people can have suntans in February.’ It was like a big star had come to town. I was amazed just seeing him there.”
In those months before he ran for president, Kennedy commanded public attention opposing the Vietnam War and criticizing President Lyndon Johnson.
But he was also preoccupied with the scourge of poverty and hunger, a focus that had taken him to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, and to the Mississippi Delta, where he was seen wiping away tears after venturing into a family’s shack and meeting a child with a distended stomach who was listless from malnourishment.
Now, a year later, Kennedy traveled to eastern Kentucky’s coal country, a region that one local leader told him accounted for 20 of the nation’s 30 poorest counties; where a doctor told Kennedy that 18 percent of the population was underweight and 50 percent suffered from intestinal parasites; where one man, Clister Johnson of Partridge, Ky., told him that he, his wife and nine children survived on a monthly income of $60.
“They’re desperate and filled with despair,” Kennedy told a television reporter. “It seems to me that in this country, as wealthy as we are, this is an intolerable condition. It reflects on all of us. We can do things all over the rest of the world but I think we should do things for people in our own country.”
Over the course of two days, Kennedy traveled 300 miles in Appalachia, stopping in towns with names such as Neon and Hazard and Pippa Passes. He held two public hearings, one of them in a one-room schoolhouse, visited people in their beat-up homes and tapped into a “deep vein of disillusionment,” as described at the time by William Greider, then a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
“Don’t Give Us Anymore Promises,” read a banner at one stop. “We Can’t Eat Your Fancy Promises.”
“It was a really scary time for the country, which was fracturing into multiple pieces, and Bobby Kennedy acted in the spirit of the moment,” Greider recalled recently. “I can still picture him talking to street crowds in Chicago and New York, spinning it out with full feeling, emotion and thought. That was his brilliance. He was not a bleeding heart until that season. It was in that moment that he captured the spirit of the liberal discontent. Not just in eastern Kentucky but everywhere.”
The trip was organized by Peter Edelman and Tom Johnston, two of Kennedy’s aides who consulted with local leaders such as Tom Gish, editor of the Mountain Eagle, the local newspaper that his son, Ben, now runs. The one detail that they failed to plan for was the crush of reporters who followed Kennedy, forming a caravan of 30 or 40 cars that clogged the winding roads.
“We should have had a bus, but it never occurred to us,” said Edelman, now 80, a Georgetown University law professor, who can remember journalists desperately trying to keep up with the senator, arriving at stops just as Kennedy was departing. They fumed that they were missing their story, the words for which they dictated over the phone to rewrite desks back at their offices.
Greider, who would later write for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and the Nation, said he was “put off by the theatrics and manipulation” as he approached the trip, a sense that Kennedy was stringing along the public and the press, which was awaiting word on whether he would run.
Yet Greider said he saw something during those two days in Kentucky that “captured me and changed my mind a little bit about Bobby Kennedy.” It occurred at a schoolhouse, where the senator and his entourage arrived to find six or eight students and their teacher “who were in shock when we stormed in. Terrified. They didn’t know what this was, they had never heard of Bobby Kennedy or national politics.”
“These kids were hunkered down at their desks, hoping that this storm would pass, and he grasped immediately that this was a horror show,” Greider said. “He went around, one by one, kneeling by their desks. He didn’t say very much. He nodded at them, talked to them in whispers, held their hands. It was such a human response. This was a side of the politician you don’t see very often.”
Not everyone embraced the senator’s visit, particularly those who objected to an outsider parachuting into their community as if they could not help themselves. Edward Murphy, a Kentucky state lawmaker, claimed that the senator had “insulted” the state by focusing on poverty and conveying to the nation a negative impression of the state.
But the articles and photographs that appeared in the newspapers told another story — “Senator Kennedy was cheered as if he were a candidate,” reported the New York Times, which described “cries of ‘Please run for president.’ ”
“It showed people that we had somebody in Washington who cared what was happening to us,” Ben Gish said.
A month after his visit, Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. He was assassinated three months later, news that Ben Gish learned by turning on his parents’ television the following morning, the announcer’s somber pronouncements freezing him.
Gish had already lived through John F. Kennedy’s assassination, after which he recalls he and his friends somehow being afraid that the airplanes flying over eastern Kentucky were actually Russian bombers about to attack the United States. Five years later, he had no such fears as he learned of the senator’s death. Instead, he felt a sadness that lingers half a century later.
“It was very confusing and upsetting,” he recalled. “It just blew me away.”
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