Political Animal


April 04, 2012 11:45 AM A Fateful Week in 1968

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TCinLA on April 04, 2012 11:58 AM:

    Sadly, if writers aren't careful, hackery is the final end. That's particularly true nowadays, with the overall decline in subject matter quality.

    But Thomas' description of a worthless excuse for a human being like Romney goes far below even that. I do however, like "pinstriped prevaricator," proof that Ed has yet to hit that undesired goal.

  • Joe Friday on April 04, 2012 12:13 PM:

    Doesn't matter what Evan Thomas used to be, he presently is a hack. He keeps repeatedly claiming that "entitlements" are the drivers of our massive current federal deficits & debt. Nevermind that the independent non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that the vast overwhelming majority of our massive federal deficits & debt are as a result of the massive decline in federal income tax revenue, caused by the numerous rounds of tax cuts which overwhelmingly benefited the Rich & Corporate, enacted during the previous administration.

    Could somebody please hit this clown in the face with a pie ?

  • threegoal on April 04, 2012 12:40 PM:

    For the moment I will forget Thomas and honor the memories of both MLK and RFK. 1968 remains seared on my psyche.

    I was in College (Michigan State) and taking a once a week Sociology class on Minorities from 7-10 on a Thursday evening. There was a mid-class break. Coming back from it our professor had just learned of the assassination of MLK. He was totally broken up. He talked about having known him and marched with him, and he then dismissed the class, as he could not go on.

    Fast forward to early June. It was Wednesday of finals week, and I had a clock radio that came on to awaken me. I was a little groggy, and the words I heard seemed strange. Gradually I put together that something was very, very wrong. I then figured out that RFK had been shot, although at that point he may have been still alive.

    When you add together the earlier shock of LBJ having dropped out and the two assassinations, it made the Spring of 1968 feel far more momentous than any string of 2-3 months should ever be. And now I look back 44 years and see how many wrong turns were made that year, and how much we have to work and fight to right a number of things that were wrong way back then, and other wrongs that have introduced in the intervening years.

    The RFK Indianapolis anecdote reminds me of the size of our nation's loss that year. Other than that, forget Thomas.

  • Lee Gibson on April 04, 2012 1:21 PM:

    Most of the above passage quotes RFK, not the hacktacular Thomas. So whose eloquence are we supposed to appreciate here?

    [Your comment was cited when this post was sent to the Facebook feed (which can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/WashingtonMonthly ) Thank you. ]

  • Rich on April 04, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Thomas used to have a biting wit--his history of the CIA is both well researched and entertaining. The RFK quote is from a piece that probably was related Thomas' sometimes insightful but mildly disappointing RFK bio. Thomas is one of the many Beltway types who seems to have gotten locked into a particular sort of conventional wisdom during the Monicagate episode. He occasionally shows glimmers of intelligence as in reconsidering his support for the Iraq debacle, but mostly he just seems to have become a hack like his Post-Newsweek friends at Politico.

  • Tom Stewart on April 04, 2012 2:43 PM:

    And Thomas gets the quote wrong:
    "So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true.."

    That should be, "yes, IT'S true" Bobby was talking about the awful news, not how right he is about saying people should go home to pray. I'm working an a play about RFK, and I've been listening to this speech over and over. Thomas should know better.

  • Amusing Alias on April 04, 2012 3:51 PM:

    I'm afraid I didn't get very far in this story. "'My favorite poet was Aeschylus,' Kennedy told his audience, not many of whom had graduated from high school..." How does Thomas know the educational attainment of Kennedy's audience? Social arithmetic: Blacks+Indiana+'60's = ignorant savages. Luckily they had an elite white man that night to soothe the savage breast. Not cool Evan. Not cool at all.

  • JM917 on April 04, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Hard to believe that Evan Thomas is the grandson of Norman Thomas, the great socialist and human rights champion.

  • Nick on April 04, 2012 6:21 PM:

    Ed, can you imagine the media and wingnut response today if any Democratic politician started a speech with, "My favorite poet was Aeschylus ..." ? Indeed, if he or she said the word 'poet'?

  • withrow on April 04, 2012 8:07 PM:


    The video of Robert F. Kennedy's remarks can be seen at this link. No notes, no teleprompter.

  • Doug on April 04, 2012 9:00 PM:

    Amusing Alias, before you get all superior, consider that graduation rates TODAY still show an unfortunately large number of blacks not graduating HS. The graduation rates were worse then.
    As for referencing Aeschylus, I graduated HS a hundred miles north of Indy in 1968 and the only reference to him that I'd encountered up to that point was in a song* from "Kiss Me, Kate!".

    *"Brush Up Your Shakespeare"