Robert Kennedy heard the holy names

David Margolick - 28.5 2018

How Robert Kennedy heard the holy names shortly before departing this world

Allen Ginsberg hadn’t had an appointment that morning in early 1968 when he appeared at the Washington office of Senator Robert F Kennedy. But Kennedy agreed to see him anyway, and heard him out on everything from the plight of heroin addicts to federal drug policy to global warming to the war in Vietnam to the invention of LSD to the degraded state of New York City to how everyone, including his own mother, had let down Jesus Christ. (For a Jewish mother not to understand her son, Ginsberg told Kennedy, was “the most terrible thing of all”.)

At one point Ginsberg, loquacious and impassioned and hirsute, sporting jeans and a workingman’s cap, posed a question to Kennedy, the devout and strait-laced father of 10: had he ever smoked pot? A smiling Kennedy said he had not. “Oh, come on!” Ginsberg remonstrated. “You can tell me! I won’t tell anyone!” And when Kennedy, then agonizing over a White House run, dug in – the dangers of dope hadn’t yet been determined, he noted – Ginsberg went off on him.

“That’s a pretty inhuman answer to give,” he scolded. “What kind of a president do you want to be? On the subject of something as spiritual and sweet as pot, if you’re going to sit around giving an IBM-machine answer, that’s not going to satisfy the [younger] generation.

“The trouble with you is you have the reputation, which is substantiated by that kind of an answer, of being kind of a heartless, anti-faggot, anti-tenderness, mechanical politician on the make,” Ginsberg went on. “And what this country needs, if anything, is tenderness. Tenderness is the key to the solution of the ecological problem, as well as all the other human problems. Tenderness to mother nature, tenderness to our fellow man, including tenderness to fairies and junkies, is what at this point is desired by the entire younger generation. What they’re looking for is a politician who’s friendly and tender-hearted.”

“He really resented that,” Ginsberg recalled for the writer Jean Stein in January 1970, a year and a half after Kennedy’s assassination. Ginsberg was one of dozens of Kennedy associates and acquaintances Stein and her co-author, George Plimpton, interviewed for American Journey, an account built around the train ride carrying Kennedy’s remains from New York to Washington for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Kennedy told Ginsberg that day that he was quite the opposite – hard-hearted, or cold-hearted, or a cold fish – “Some phrase like that,” Ginsberg said. It was Kennedy’s reflexive response to anyone accusing him of softness or sentimentality.

 It’s hard to imagine many other senators circa 1968, or circa 2018 for that matter, inviting a beat poet into his inner sanctum, then hearing him out. In fact, Ginsberg had had little luck that morning on Capitol Hill, wandering the halls, trying to buttonhole congressmen; before heading into Kennedy’s office, he’d tried Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon and, told he wasn’t around, had pestered Morse’s secretary into taking a memo from him.

The Robert Kennedy being honored these days, as the 50th anniversary of his murder approaches, is a man of uniformity – uniform courage, and goodness, and tolerance. It’s someone his intimates don’t recognize. “People have been writing about Kennedy as if he was Mother Teresa,” said Adam Walinsky, his longtime aide and chief speechwriter. “He was a lot of things, but he was not Mother Teresa. He was sensitive but he was a tough guy.”

Robert Kennedy was in fact a man of contradictions. One of them was that as rigid and doctrinaire and Manichean as he could sometimes be – traits that had equipped him to work for Senator Joseph McCarthy and manage his older brother’s presidential campaign in 1960 – he could also be intensely curious and open-minded. He sought out people who might startle or even abuse him, because they’d tell him something new. “Don’t stack it with Uncle Toms or middle-of-the-roaders,” he advised Budd Schulberg in May 1967 as Schulberg gathered representatives from the writers’ workshop he’d created in Los Angeles following the Watts riots to meet Kennedy. “I’d like to hear from the militants, how they’re really thinking.”

He was to do the same thing in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King Jr was killed, courting local radicals and street people rather than more predictable establishment types, even though he knew they’d hit him up for money or chew him out. Kennedy would seethe during such sessions. He could be lounging by his pool, he’d tell his detractors; he didn’t need to take such crap. But then he’d cool down, and ponder, and evolve, and do.

With Ginsberg that day he was testing the limits of his own tolerance. He had issues with homosexuality, or at least some gay men thought so; he’d once enraged Gore Vidal by publicly removing Vidal’s arm from Jacqueline Kennedy’s shoulder during a White House party. “There was something exotic about me that he couldn’t entirely accept,” Truman Capote once said of him. “He was trying to accept it like some sort of old father doesn’t want to accept long hair on a kid, or sideburns, but yet, he’s sort of stuck with him.” Kennedy had made one homophobic crack about James Baldwin after his ill-fated meeting with him and other black intellectuals in May 1963, and another three months later about Bayard Rustin on the eve of the March on Washington. “So you’re down here for that old black fairy’s anti-Kennedy demonstration?” he’d asked Marietta Tree.

But that day in Kennedy’s office – Ginsberg placed it in late 1967 or early 1968; it was more likely the latter – the senator welcomed him in. Whether the poetry with which Kennedy famously consoled himself following his brother’s murder included Howl or Kaddish or anything else of Ginsberg’s is uncertain. But Kennedy clearly knew of him; in his book To Seek a Newer World, he’d noted how, on different occasions, both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union had expelled him. “Established communists, like other bureaucratic totalitarians, have no fondness for revolutionaries,” he’d written.

Kennedy “didn’t recoil from people”, Walinsky recalled. “He listened. And he listened not just with his head, but with his heart and his guts. And he listened to the right things. And he paid attention. He was willing to pick up wisdom and insight from wherever it came. He wasn’t about to throw that guy out of his office because he was a New York hippie and he had a big beard and he was an obvious ‘faggot’, as he described himself. None of that got in the way. And it wasn’t just politeness. I mean, he really wanted to know what that guy had to teach him – if he had anything.”

 “The way in which Kennedy operated on so many things was intuitive,” noted Peter Edelman, the senator’s longtime legislative assistant, who had received Ginsberg in an anteroom and then, after checking with the senator, escorted him back to see him. “When Walter Reuther wanted Robert Kennedy to go meet Cesar Chavez, I walked into the office and I say: ‘The subcommittee on migratory labor is going to have hearings in California on Cesar Chavez’s farm workers strike and would you be willing to go?’ He said ‘yes’ without asking anything else. There were obviously many things he thought about a lot, like what was he going to do about Vietnam, but he had this intuitive thing where he would just instinctively say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about things sometimes. It could be annoying because you hadn’t had a chance to make your case.”

To Walinsky, it was clear why, barely four years after Dallas, the fatalistic Kennedy bristled at Ginsberg’s lecture on tender-heartedness. “I could see him taking umbrage at that,” he said. “Because, remember, by the time this happens, he’s had his Gethsemane and he’s pretty much aware that his Calvary is ahead of him. And by that point, he’s picked up and held a lot of little poor kids, who probably have pellagra all over them. So when he gets lectured on tenderness, maybe he’s thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ Has he been where I’ve been?’ Many times I saw that aspect of the senator – that he could be irritable when he was completely misunderstood.”

‘I shut up and let him talk’

Ginsberg had first attempted to see Kennedy in 1965, the year he’d entered the Senate; Ginsberg had been in town to testify about his experiences with LSD before a Senate subcommittee investigating drugs, a panel on which Kennedy sat. That was when he’d met Edelman, who told him he’d just missed the senator. “I had the impression that he had gone out just to avoid me,” Ginsberg remembered. “But that might have been my paranoia.” He and Edelman had had dinner together that night, and kept in touch some afterward. So three years later, with draconian drug legislation pending, Ginsberg came calling for Kennedy again, armed with a bag full of clippings and his harmonium.

Kennedy began their conversation that day by asking Ginsberg a very un-senatorial question: which of two Russian poets, Andrei Voznesensky or Yevgeny Yevtushenko, he preferred. Ginsberg expressed a clear preference for one of them – Edelman can’t remember which – because, as Ginsberg explained it, “he kisses with his mouth open”. If that made the sometimes priggish Kennedy blanch, he didn’t show it. Ginsberg then launched into the main purpose of his visit.

The “law and order” problem in New York, he said, was really a hoax, concocted by various interest groups – the mafia; the police; the federal law enforcement establishment – each with its own reason for keeping narcotics illegal and denying junkies the heroin to which, under a supreme court case from 1925, they were entitled when received under a doctor’s care. Restore the civil rights of drug addicts, he urged, implement the British system of providing addicts with drugs under controlled conditions, and the crime problem then ravaging urban neighborhoods like his own on New York’s Lower East Side would disappear.

 “That was the first basic thing that I laid down, meanwhile, diving into my bag and pulling out scraps of newspaper clipping to illustrate what I was saying – statistics,” Ginsberg remembered. “He listened, sort of, but I could see that his attention was wandering. He thought I was indulging in inappropriate behavior of some sort or other. I don’t think he was able to concentrate that long to realize the significance of the information I was giving him. So then I shut up and let him talk.”

 

Given the floor, Kennedy asked Ginsberg what relationship, if any, there was between his friends – “hippie or flower power people, the hip generation people”, as Ginsberg described them – and black power leaders, and whether some sort of coalition between them might work. It was, said Walinsky, part of Kennedy’s ongoing effort to fashion new, progressive alliances to counter the political mainstream: were these people who could be harnessed, Kennedy wondered, and was Ginsberg the kind of person who could harness them?

(Ginsberg replied that he’d smoked pot a couple of times with Stokely Carmichael, but that was about it for bridge-building. Kennedy also asked about LSD; Ginsberg told him it provided a religious experience like those described by William James, and that its development in 1945 was as important as the atom bomb’s around the same time. “He just nodded and listened,” Ginsberg said.)

Ginsberg then described the greenhouse effect and how, should car exhaust continue to warm the upper atmosphere, large land masses would be covered with water within 40 or 50 years. He warned how air and noise pollution were making New York City uninhabitable and, more generally, how pollution and drug laws harmed not only individuals but had led to “a metabolic poisoning of the body politic” culminating in the war in Vietnam. The United States was like a sick person, he said. “Is that clear?” he asked Kennedy. “Am I making sense to you?” Though he didn’t understand everything Ginsberg said, Kennedy replied, he got his drift. And all of it, he said, “sounded very poetic”.

 Fearful of wearing out his welcome – “I’ve taken up enough of your time. You’re probably as busy as I am, or busier,” he conceded – Ginsberg prepared to leave, but not before asking a couple more questions. What did Kennedy think was going to happen to their country? Would the military-industrial complex, the one controlling Lyndon Johnson, get worse? “It’ll get worse,” Kennedy replied, looking him in the eye as he did.

Ginsberg bade Kennedy goodbye and rejoined Walinsky and Jeff Greenfield, then a junior speechwriter on Kennedy’s staff, in their small office. Only then, with a start, did he realize he’d neglected to do something with the senator, something more important than any words they’d exchanged. And, as luck would have it, Kennedy happened into the room. It was as if he’d hadn’t had quite enough of Ginsberg, and had come back for a bit more.

“Wait a minute,” Ginsberg told him. “I wanted to sing you the Hare Krishna mantra. Can you stay and listen? It’ll just take one minute.” After Kennedy agreed, Ginsberg pulled out his harmonium. “He has this one-tone mouth harp, so he blows his note on that – what’s the sound? Mmmmmmmmmmgggg?” Edelman recalled. Ginsberg chanted two choruses. “I think Kennedy was kind of … I don’t know if it was delighted or amused,” Greenfield recalled. “I think he was kind of intrigued.”

“What was that?” Kennedy had asked.

“That’s a magic spell for the preservation of the planet,” Ginsberg told him. “Hear it once and you’re immediately enlightened.”

“The guy on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue needs that more than I do,” said Kennedy. “You ought to sing that to the guy up the street.”

“Well, make an appointment for me,” Ginsberg replied. But he never did see Lyndon Johnson.

Soon Ginsberg was on his way, unsure whether anything he’d just said to or done with Kennedy had stuck. And so he remained until that May, a couple of months after Kennedy’s entry into the presidential race, when someone from the senator’s office named Phil Mandelkorn called him.

Mandelkorn, who’d just left Time to work on the Kennedy campaign, told Ginsberg he was writing some speeches for Kennedy, and that the senator wanted to see the materials Ginsberg had brought with him that day. “So I put together a bunch of Xeroxes of clippings and scientific papers that I’d accumulated, and sent it off,” Ginsberg told Stein. “DOPE FIEND NEWS,” Ginsberg, compulsive archivist that he was, wrote on the manila envelope. “A Collage of Newsclips analyzing JUNK PROBLEMS related to Crime on the Streets and POT LAWS AS POLITICS.” “Please try to show this to Senator Kennedy,” he’d scrawled on the side. It was dated 10 May 1968.

Had Kennedy ever given that speech? Stein asked Ginsberg. “I don’t think he ever got to actually work out the material,” Ginsberg said: barely three weeks later, he noted, Kennedy was dead. But on the day in early 1968 when Allen Ginsberg stopped by to see him, it turned out, Robert Kennedy had, indeed, been listening.