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June 7, 2014
Jack Ohman: Remembering the Crucial California Primary and RFK

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(June 7 - by Jack Ohman)

Every time I hear the phrase, California primary, I have unpleasant memories from childhood. This is the first time I have lived in California and voted here; it was kind of exciting, in a way.

But I still had that feeling of melancholy and dread.

I associate "California primary" with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. I doubt anything will change that now for me.

On the morning of June 5, 1968, I got up for breakfast, which was always a bowl of Life. My mother was sitting and staring at a small, black and white television screen, repeating the phrase, "That poor woman. That poor woman. That poor woman."

She must have said it 20 times.

"What poor woman?"

"Bobby Kennedy's mother."

I was 7, and knew who Bobby Kennedy was. I had just come back from watching a movie in Marquette, Mich. It was March, which can be a brutal month in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but it was a sunny day. The snow was melting and there were the hopeful streams of runoff flowing in the street. I remember this so clearly, and the sun was so warm.

My mother stuck her head outside and said, "Bobby Kennedy is running for president!"

I knew he was President Kennedy's little brother, and that's about it. I had a little brother, too.

Now, bear in mind that my parents voted for Nixon in 1960. I think that by 1968, they had turned on the Vietnam War, and I do not think they were Kennedy people, exactly.

But she was a young woman, 37, and vivacious, and she was interested in RFK's persona, I'm sure. After all, the man was only 42 years old, an age I would happily become again.

We moved to Washington, D.C., later that month. Weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, and I watched the nation's capital burn from my father's office in Arlington, Va.

Dozens of spires of smoke drifted over the Capitol dome, but more toward northwest Washington. This made a huge impression on me, as I had never seen a fire of any kind before, except for in a fireplace.

After that, my father bought a .38 pistol and kept it under the front seat of his 1966 Impala station wagon.

We lived in a small apartment in Alexandria - "Presidential Gardens," in the James Madison Building, and on that morning in June, all I heard all day was the phrase, "California primary."

"Crucial California primary."

"Sen. Kennedy had just declared victory in the California primary when ..." Kennedy was on television all day, smiling. Raising his hands. Balloons. California primary.

We went to bed, and Kennedy was still alive. The men on TV sat around and discussed him, the scene at Good Samaritan Hospital, and speculated about whether he would live, or be permanently disabled. I remember that phrase, too.

"Good Samaritan Hospital."

And, "The Ambassador Hotel." All day. And the California primary.

I went to the door. The paper was in the hall on the floor in dim, orange light. "The Evening Star," another afternoon newspaper casualty.

"Robert F. Kennedy Dies"

A few days later, my dad drove us to Arlington Cemetery. We walked up to where the television lights were. The hearse bearing the flag-draped coffin of Bobby Kennedy passed us.

I remember my mother saying, "My God, there's President Johnson."

An African American woman sitting on an ice chest, no more than 50 yards from President Kennedy's grave, said: "I don't give a damn about LBJ. I want to see Bobby."

We walked back to the car along with thousands of other people. For years, I never really thought it remarkable that I had witnessed this. Now I do.

So I tried really hard this year to try to forget it. Forget the phrase, forget that it happened, and focus on Jerry Brown and Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly and Jay Schenirer and Betty Yee and all those names appearing, 46 years later, on another California primary ballot.

I couldn't, really.

I kept thinking about Bobby Kennedy, and the California primary of 1968, not 2014. Voting is the best way to honor his memory. I wish 82 percent of the California electorate felt the same way.