Robert F. Kennedy stood at the precipice of history when he ran for president of the United States. He was felled by an assassin’s bullet on June, 6, 1968, forever changing the course of the country.
Republican Richard Nixon went on to win the election ushering in the era of post-truth politics that can be traced to the present day and the election of Donald Trump.
The 51st anniversary of Kennedy’s death will unfold two weeks from today on June 6. Much has been written about what might have been had Kennedy survived to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Author Greg Messel makes another credible attempt to evaluate his impact on the nation in a fictional novel.
The public has not seen another politician like him before or since, according to Messel. His book “Dreams That Never Were” (Sunbreaks Publishing) gives Kennedy’s legacy a much-needed re-evaluation that is particularly compelling in the Age of Trump.
Kennedy was haunted by the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who also was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, during a campaign swing through Dallas.
By the time Robert ran for president, the nation was mired in the Vietnam War, which had dramatically escalated under JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy cautioned Johnson against sending combat troops as early as 1965, but Johnson chose instead to follow the recommendation of the rest of his predecessor’s still intact staff of advisers.
In July of 1965, after Johnson made a large commitment of American ground forces to Vietnam, Kennedy made multiple calls for a settlement through negotiation.
Even so, Kennedy stated in his 1968 campaign brochure that he did not support either a simple withdrawal or a surrender in South Vietnam. Instead, he called for an “honorable peace.”
Kennedy was also an advocate of civil rights as his brother had been and became an icon of liberalism along with younger brother Edward M. Kennedy, who ran for president in 1980 and served in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy had just scored a major victory in the California Democratic primary on the day he was shot.
We caught up with Messel in him home base of Seattle to talk about his book in an Improper Q&A.
Improper: What was your motivation in writing this book?
Messel: The events of 1968, many of which I witnessed up close, have always had a profound impact on me. Several ’50th Anniversary”’ moments in the last couple of years have caused me to reflect on 1968. Last year I got to go to Arlington National Cemetery, and I spent some time at Bobby Kennedy’s grave. I thought of the profound loss we all experienced when he was killed. I wanted to capture the loss of hope and idealism I felt so profoundly.
IM: You have a terrific story going on in the book alongside the RKF-memories; tell us about it.
Messel: My main protagonist is Alex Hurley. He’s a young newspaper reporter who covers the Kennedy campaign throughout Oregon and California in the spring of 1968. He is also wounded when Robert Kennedy is shot. The cloud of the Vietnam War hangs heavily over the entire arc of the story. The book speaks to the loss of innocence and idealism in our lives. Alex meets a woman as he convalesces from his wounds. She helps him retake the reins and return to his work and to a new future.
IM: How did you feel about RFK?
Messel: Even now it’s painful for me to watch Bobby’s victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel. When he turns to leave the podium I want to yell “Don’t Go!” It’s so incredibly sad, and I remember how uneasy we all felt during his campaign when he was mobbed by huge crowds with little or no security. I still remember someone throwing a string of firecrackers at his motorcade in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was terrifying. RFK was one of my heroes. When I was a young man I believed we really could change things with him as our leader. We could help achieve civil rights for blacks, help the poor and end the war in Vietnam.
IM: Your book’s release date, June 6, is the 51st anniversary of his assassination … has he gotten his proper due?
Messel: No. Whenever I mention my admiration for RFK, I hear naysayers anxious to parrot terrible stories about the Kennedys or about Bobby in particular. We have never seen anyone like him since—a politician who inspires us. Bobby Kennedy’s touching announcement about the death of Dr. King to a group of mostly black supporters in Indianapolis was a superbly profound moment. His death sent our nation down a bad road—one we remain on today in a very real way.
I think Bobby Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War much sooner than LBJ or Nixon. The needless continuation of that war took an enormous toll on my generation. There were 109 soldiers who died in Vietnam on the day Robert Kennedy died. The carnage continued and 1968 was the bloodiest single year of the war. I put these words in one of my character’s mouths. “Imagine a world where black and white live peacefully together, and no one is getting killed in Vietnam.”
IM: Give us a little of your background.
Messel: If someone had stopped me when I was a little boy and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, ‘I want to be a newspaper reporter.’ I covered events and sports for my hometown papers as a stringer when I was in high school. I was also the sports editor of my high school paper. After college I got a job as a reporter at a daily newspaper covering news and politics in the rough and tumble world of Wyoming. I was the news editor of the paper for several years. Then I left the newspaper world and worked in budgeting and financial forecasting for an electric utility mostly in Portland, Oregon. But I always loved writing so, once I retired from the corporate world, I started writing books full time.
IM: Were you born in Seattle?
Messel:No, I was actually born in Indiana. My parents relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was five years old, and that’s where I grew up. Much of my corporate career was spent in Portland, Oregon. I’ve always been attracted to Seattle, where I moved in 2008.
IM: Tell us about life in Seattle
Messel:I spend most of my time writing. My wife and I live in Edmonds, a small town on Puget Sound where ferries are shuttling back and forth all day. It’s a beautiful place and we love it. My wife is a lawyer, and we spend way too much time watching, reading and discussing politics.
IM: What are some of the other books you’ve written?
Messel: “Dreams That Never Were” is my eleventh book. Maybe it’s the mentality you have to have as an author but I think it’s my best book. You learn so much each time you write a new novel and it’s the only way I know to really hone your skills as a writer. Prior to this I wrote a mystery series set in San Francisco in the 1950s. My main characters are a husband and wife who are private eyes. I’ve really enjoyed writing mysteries, and I love historical fiction. All of my books are summarized on my website at gregmessel.com
IM: I imagine ‘Dreams That Never Were’ is going to stir up a lot of memories. What has been the reaction, thus far?
Messel: I think it will stir up a lot of memories. The reaction from people who lived through that time has been very positive. ‘Dreams That Never Were’ will likely be a walk down memory lane for many Baby Boomers. However, when I talk to the generation behind mine, I find that they seem to know very little about this critical period. I hope my book reveals for them the watershed moment we had in 1968 when we lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
IM: What’s next for Greg Messel?
Messel: I’ve got the outlines for a couple of new books in the works. One is based on my grandparents’ experiences in a small Indiana coal mining town in the depth of the Depression. I also have another outline for a book in the private detective series.