The column below originally appeared in U.S. 1 on June 1, 1988.
It’s that time again: a Princeton Reunions is coming up, it’s an election year, and we’re about to have presidential primaries in New Jersey and California. In the middle of a warm night that is more summer than spring, at about 4 in the morning, I am awakened by my father, who for some crazy reason is up and watching television.
“You better watch this,” I remember him saying. “Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
Twenty years later I couldn’t care less about presidential politics (I can’t remember the last candidate I liked enough to vote for), Princeton Reunions (I’ll skip this year, thanks), or even Bobby Kennedy (we know now, and we suspected then, that the guy was no saint). But I am fascinated, I have to admit, by the incredible roller coaster that we all rode 20 years ago. What a year, 1968, to be the editor of a daily college newspaper. I pulled my bound volume of the 1968 Daily Princetonian out of the basement and charted the events of the year.
As we started, Lyndon Johnson was president. Bobby Kennedy was telling friends he didn’t dare run against the incumbent; Eugene McCarthy was alone on the campaign trail; Martin Luther King was about to intensify his campaign for civil rights for “Negroes,” as black people were politely called back then; the Vietnam War still looked like one we might win; and — at Princeton we lived in an all-male environment in which a major issue of “student power” was a change in the parietal rules so that we could entertain girls (sorry, but that was the polite word back then) in our rooms until after 7 p.m. on weeknights and past 11 on weekends.
That was where we stood in January of 1968. Then things began to change.
In February of that year, some campus politicos were talking about whether or not Robert Kennedy would be on the New Jersey primary ballot. A few days later the Princeton chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society performed its first work of “guerrilla theater,” a morality play with a strong anti-ROTC theme.
A Princeton classmate of mine, writing an open letter to the university trustees, proclaimed: “Though you may reject student power, student power may in turn reject you.”
In March the Daily Princetonian noted the death of the Young Democrats on campus. Their energy, it seemed, had been spirited away by the SDS. That wasn’t so bad, we wrote on the editorial page, but “it’s the system that so badly fails its purpose that gives us pause.”
March, 1968, brought with it the temperamental winds of politics, Eugene McCarthy finished a close second to LBJ in New Hampshire — his success prompted formation of a Students for McCarthy group, which listed among its supporters Margot Einstein (Albert’s daughter) and Dick Colman (the Princeton football coach — imagine that! — who later ran as a McCarthy delegate in the New Jersey primary).
A day later we ran a story on a newcomer to the presidential race: Robert F. Kennedy. A few days after that a student journalist corralled former Oregon senator Maurine B. Neuberger, and quoted her predicting that Kennedy would overtake McCarthy and that, in any case, “Johnson is losing the country.”
Less than two weeks later Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. In an editorial, we opined that “today there is hope again in America and ironically the credit for that must go, not solely to McCarthy or Kennedy, but also to President Johnson.”
All that was action enough to keep student editors on their feet and out of their classes for weeks on end. Four days after Johnson’s announcement, however, we had another story to tackle: Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The Princetonian carried the story the next day in a two-column box at the bottom of the front page. The banner headline that day was “Trustees weigh abolition of parietals” — thinking about those girls again.
By the next week, we realized the King story was one that deserved bigger play. Rioting had broken out in cities across the nation, and even in Trenton — “Negro youth shot to death,” read one headline from the Princetonian. A day later the newspaper reported that the university had announced a three-fold increase in the number of black students admitted.
Clearly the newspaper had no shortage of stories to cover. The trustees issued a major announcement on parietals. But instead of abolishing them altogether, they merely revised them, allowing students to have female visitors until 10 p.m. on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends. At the Princetonian, we denounced the decision as a travesty, and predicted that “students may now be forced to try other channels to achieve recognition of basic student rights.”
That debate might have continued for weeks but for the news of the sit-in and takeover at Columbia University. Among the several hundred Columbia students occupying the office of Grayson Kirk and his fellow administrators were two reporters from the Princetonian, who stayed on the scene for more than a week, filing voluminous stories by telephone back to Princeton. A headline on May Day raised the big question for Princeton: “Could it happen here?”
But even the Columbia story paled in comparison to what was being reported in the national press. On May 8 the Princetonian reported that Kennedy had scored a win over McCarthy in the Indiana primary. In that same issue, the senior class recorded its annual poll. In the category of “most likely to succeed,” the winner was the Viet Cong.
In the next to last issue of the spring, we printed our endorsement for the Democratic Presidential nomination: “Mr. Kennedy sports a fine record in the Senate, but his statements in Indiana, the recent revelation that he ordered a wiretap on Martin Luther King’s phone while Attorney General, his thirst for power, and his almost fanatical desire to make the ghost of John Kennedy the next White House occupant — all lead to the conclusion that Robert Kennedy has less intellect, courage, and personal integrity than one of his Democratic opponents: Eugene McCarthy.”
I have vague memories of stumbling through some final examinations, and then heading home to the relative calm of upstate New York for a few days of rest before returning to Princeton to put out one more edition of the paper — the annual Reunions issue. On the day I was scheduled to return I was awakened early: “You better watch this. Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
Even that issue of the paper, normally a rehash of prior editions, turned into a frenzied effort. Would the P-Rade be canceled or wouldn’t it? It was. I drove to Trenton to get Associated Press photographs of Kennedy, and then to someplace out near Hopewell, I recall, to get them engraved for printing.
In the midst of all that, a call came in from the Kennedy campaign. In planning the funeral Ethel Kennedy had thought of the college students, and wanted some college editors to be part of the press corps covering the funeral, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and then the train ride to Washington for the burial.
On Saturday I went into New York and, as promised, got press credentials. From the church service we were transported — I can’t remember how — to Penn Station. As I walked to the special train that would carry the body of the senator, his family, his campaign staff, and the press, I recall passing a television camera. Back in upstate New York my parents watched in amazement as I suddenly walked by. To this day they can’t get over the fact that I covered the Kennedy funeral and never told them in advance. If I had known I was going to be on television I might have.
The train ride encompassed all the phases of death, from denial to acceptance. In the beginning, as it passed slowly through New Jersey, the mood was salubrious. Reporters and political operatives who had been working on adrenalin during the frenetic Kennedy campaign were still charged up: talking politics, quarreling, laughing, drinking, talking politics.
Sirhan Sirhan had killed the candidate but the campaign lived on. Gradually, though, the mood changed. The Kennedy family, led by Ethel [visibly pregnant], came through the train and greeted everyone individually.
Then our attention turned to the scene outside the train. All along the way crowds stood in silence along the tracks. By the time we got to Maryland, the train was hours behind schedule. The crowds had only grown thicker in that time. I have memories of old people waving hankies, of others holding American flags, of a huge throng of Boy Scouts, probably representing scores of troops, standing in formation in a field alongside the tracks, all saluting as the train lurched by.
If I had to guess the number of people along the tracks, I would say in the millions. Perceptions, though, were cloudy. As I look back over the spring of ‘68 from the vantage point of 20 years, I can’t believe how quickly some things happened — that King, for example, was shot just four days after Johnson withdrew or that Kennedy’s campaign lasted only 80 days.
The train ride, though, seemed to last forever. The rollercoaster ride of 1968 continued, as well. The Chicago Democratic convention, which I helped cover as a summer intern for Time magazine, turned into a police riot. The people of Prague, Czechoslovakia, were run over by Soviet tanks. The election was a cliffhanger.
When it was all over, though, nothing really happened that surprised us or that especially heartened us. The events of early June, 1968, had taken a lot of vinegar out of everyone. Back on campus in September, we ran the following editorial in the Princetonian:
“Prague is quiet now. The tanks are still there but the passive heroism is over. Chicago is quiet now. The hospital in McCarthy headquarters is closed. Columbia too is quiet.
“Martin Luther King is dead. Robert Kennedy is dead. The feeling of last spring is dead too. Then, the students in the streets of New York had toppled Johnson. Then, McCarthy and Kennedy appeared to have a chance of giving new direction to the country. Then, something new appeared to have been born in Czechoslovakia, in France, in New Hampshire, and at Columbia. But no more. Humphrey, Johnson, Nixon, Wallace, Daley — they live.
“And those of us who were here last spring at Princeton, those of us who were in the forefront of the movement which led to the May 2 demonstration, we go back to building better bars and more erotic light displays. Welcome home.”
A postscript on the 40th anniversary: The next time I disparage the 24/7 cable news, I will remind myself of 1968, when the world was glued to a single camera trained on a loading platform at Penn Station, watching reporters board the RFK funeral train.