A Fateful Week in 1968

Yesterday I mocked some of the prose presumably written by popular historian Evan Thomas in conjunction with Politico‘s Mike Allen that appears in an new e-book on the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest. Some commenters compared one passage about a tall, dark and domineering Mitt Romney during a debate appearance to the steamy offerings of the bodice-ripping romance genre.

But if Thomas’ flare for drama seems out of place in analyzing a pinstriped prevaricator like Mitt Romney, he’s had his moments in writing about more important incidents in political history. In commemoration of the 44th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Real Clear Politics supplied a link to a 2007 essay by Thomas on the fateful week in 1968 when LBJ dropped his re-election bid, Bobby Kennedy suddenly became a presidential frontrunner, and Dr. King was gunned down outside a Memphis motel room while asking local blues musician Ben Branch to perform “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at an upcoming event.

Here’s an excerpt from Thomas’ account of RFK’s speech that night in Indianapolis, where he was campaigning, and had to tell his largely African-American audience the news of King’s assassination:

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” Kennedy told his audience, not many of whom had graduated from high school, but who now listened with rapt attention. “He wrote, ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black.

“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but most importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke …

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.

“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

That night, as the news of King’s death spread through the blighted parts of the land, there were riots in 110 cities causing 39 deaths and injuring 2,500. But in the city of Indianapolis, where Kennedy had spoken, it was quiet.

Yes, Evan Thomas used to have much better material to work with, and better politicians.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.