Me and Bobby Kennedy

By Steve Slavin

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I never formally met Bobby Kennedy, but I did once alter the course of his life for maybe five minutes. Since then, I have always felt a certain kinship with him. Had he only lived longer, who knows what he might have achieved.

My relationship with him began on a beautiful fall afternoon back in 1964, less than a year after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. It was a few weeks before Election Day, when President Lyndon Johnson would be running for a full term, and Bobby Kennedy would be running for senator in New York State.

I was hanging out in the storefront clubhouse of the Eleanor Roosevelt Independent Democrats on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, trying to figure out how we could distribute piles of cartons of campaign literature. We had all kinds of neighborhood characters dropping by, sometimes giving us political advice, but rarely offering to help out.

One of my favorites was an elderly man with a long white beard, who told us his name, but then confided that everybody called him “Uncle Sam.” I can still remember two of his sage observations.

“You want to know what is wrong with the name of the Republican Party?” he asked, while rolling the “R” in Republican.

“Sure.”

“Re means against; public means the people.”

“Great!” Carlos observed. “The Republicans are against the people!”

Smiling at his bright pupil, Uncle Sam was ready to disclose his second observation. “Do you know what is right in the middle of the Democratic Party?”

We all just shrugged. Uncle Sam waited, wanting to give everyone a chance to guess. And then he told us:  “The Democratic Party has a rat in it,” again rolling his r’s.

We just shook our heads. The man was perfectly right. We invited him to join our club. As he left, he said he’d think about it. But in the meanwhile, we should consider changing the name of our club. “Eleanor Roosevelt, she is a living saint. But think of getting rid of ‘Democrats’ from your name.”

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As much of a character as Uncle Sam was, he did not come close to Mrs. Clayton, who burst into our office one afternoon and demanded to know where our Robert Kennedy glossy photos were. Indeed, where were they? We all looked at each other and just shook our heads in shame.

“Are you trying to tell me that you don’t have any?”

We sadly agreed.

“Can any of you please answer this simple question? How can you call yourselves a Democratic club if, just weeks away from the election, you don’t have any of Bobby’s photos?”

Mrs. Clayton was a very nice-looking Black woman, maybe in her mid-sixties. And she seemed quite comfortable expecting answers to her questions. But I couldn’t get past wondering why on Earth she was wearing a fur coat on such a warm day.

“What? Do I have to do everything around here? Who’s going to drive me up to Kennedy’s headquarters on 42nd Street?”

None of us had a car. “Mrs. Clayton, if you can get some Kennedy glossy photos for us, I’ll be glad to take you up there in a cab.”

“You’re on, young man!”

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Fifteen minutes later we arrived at a large storefront that served as Kennedy’s campaign literature depot. There, I saw cartons piled eight or ten feet high along the walls and a whole bunch of people, most of whom looked very busy. I heard quite a few Boston accents among them.

Mrs. Clayton walked in as if she owned the place, and for all I knew, maybe she did. She buttonholed a middle-aged guy with red hair and the beginnings of a potbelly, and told him that she needed a few carloads of Kennedy campaign literature for this boy’s club on the Lower Eastside.

“Who yah with?”

“The Eleanor Roosevelt Independent Democrats.”

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“We’re on the Lower Eastside. We’re a Reform Democratic club,” I replied.

“Oh, we already sent a whole pile of stuff tuh the Regular Democratic club down there – the Lower Eastside Democratic Association. Why don’t you get some from them?”

“Are you familiar with the Hatfields and the McCoys?”

This got a big laugh out of him. “Mrs. Clayton, you can take whatever you need.”

He called over a couple of guys to help us, and a few minutes later, Mrs. Clayton and I were sitting in the lead limousine in a caravan laden with enough Bobby Kennedy glossies and other campaign material to give out to every Democratic voter in the entire city.

When we got to our clubhouse, Kennedy’s workers and our own people quickly filled up our entire space from floor to ceiling. When they were ready to leave, Mrs. Clayton‘s parting words to us were quite direct, “When you need something, all you’ve got to do is ask for it.” Then, she got back into the limo and rode home in style.

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After Mrs. Clayton left, the rest of us started going through some of the cartons. Whatever else might be said, there surely were enough Bobby Kennedy glossy photos, many of which showed him with smiling crowds of people. But there was far too much campaign literature for us to use, even if every household got dozens of different pieces every day.

“What are we going to do with all this shit?” asked Martha

“Hey, I’ve got a great idea!”

Everybody looked at me. While I was apparently the quasi-leader that day – not to mention the person who’d helped Mrs. Clayton deliver the goods – they were hoping that I was serious.

“Let’s dump whatever we don’t want in front of our dear neighbors, the Lower Eastside Democratic Association. You know, when I was at the Kennedy headquarters, they told me that those bastards down the block froze us out of our share of not just the Bobby Kennedy glossies, but of all the rest of his literature. So wouldn’t it be poetic justice to dump what we don’t want in front of their clubhouse?”

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, especially since, without a car, it would have been some job carrying all those cartons. And we might have even gotten arrested for illegal dumping.

“OK,” I agreed. But we need to make a good faith effort to distribute as much of this as we can. I really do hate to waste anything. And also, dumping this stuff would not be fair to Mrs. Clayton.”

So, we all went back to going through more of the cartons. After several minutes, Harry called out, “Hey, what should we do with these?”

He read us the title of a stapled packet of printed pages: “Senator Robert Kennedy’s Address to the Mizrachi Women.”

“Who the hell are the Mizrachi Women?” I asked. I’ve heard of Mizrachi salami.”

“Don’t they carry that brand at Katz’s Delicatessen? Maybe that’s what they’re referring to on that big sign they have on the back wall,” suggested Carlos.

“What sign?” asked Harry.

Carlos was laughing so hard, he had to hold up his hand for everyone to wait till he could speak. Then he said, “Send a salami to your boy in the army.”

Now we were all laughing.

Finally, after we had all settled down, Martha explained that the Mizrachi Women were a Zionist group that promoted education in Israel. That certainly seemed inoffensive enough.

I said that I was uncomfortable about distributing this twenty-page handout because it appeared to be pandering to Jews. “Look, I’m obviously a member of the tribe, but I think that while it’s fine for Kennedy to address this group, distributing it may be going a step too far.”

“So should we just dump them?” asked Martha.

“I have a great idea!” declared Harry. Let’s give them out to people on the street, but only if they’re obviously not Jewish.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I agreed.

That evening, as I locked up, I felt we had gotten a lot done, although now we had to get rid of all that shit. On my way home, I saw a middle-aged Black couple standing under a street light. Their heads were bent together, but they weren’t talking.

Then I noticed that they were thoroughly engrossed in something they were reading. It was Bobby Kennedy’s address to the Mizrachi Women.

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The chances are, you never heard of Samuel Silverman and you’re not at all familiar with the Surrogate Court of New York County, aka the court of widows and orphans. Each borough of New York City has two surrogate judges, who appoint lawyers to handle inheritance cases of families who can’t afford their own legal representation.

So that’s a good thing, right? Not always. And certainly not in the surrogate courts of New York and many other cities. Often lawyers, in cahoots with the surrogate judges, charge very high legal fees, depriving the widows and orphans of most or all of their inheritances.

In 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy decided to put a stop to this practice at least in the Manhattan (New York County) Surrogate Court. Looking long and hard, he finally found the right man -- Samuel Silverman, a justice of the State Supreme Court.

The patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph Kennedy, had amassed a family fortune that would be equivalent to at least ten billion dollars in today’s dollars. His hands were far from clean, but he provided his sons with seemingly unlimited funding to run for high political office.

And so in turn, Bobby Kennedy funded Justice Silverman’s campaign in the 1966 Democratic Primary for a vacant Surrogate seat. Almost no one in the entire borough of Manhattan had ever heard of Silverman, let alone had any idea of whether or not he might be a good Surrogate.

But none of that really mattered. What did matter were Senator Robert Kennedy’s endorsement and Joseph Kennedy’s money. But Bobby certainly put his father’s money where his own mouth was. He campaigned tirelessly for Justice Silverman.

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One Sunday afternoon in late May, just a few weeks before the Democratic Primary, Bobby Kennedy, accompanied by Justice Silverman, was scheduled to tour the Lower Eastside, making stops in each neighborhood. The tour would culminate in a giant rally in perhaps the busiest intersection of the entire Lower Eastside – the junction where Essex Street and Delancey Street met.

When the caravan arrived in front of our clubhouse, there was Bobby Kennedy sitting in a huge black convertible, and sitting next to him was Justice Silverman. Both of them were smiling and waving to a lively crowd and even reached out to shake a few hands.

The problem was that they were more than an hour behind schedule, and had been long overdue for a rally before what might be the largest crowd in Lower Eastside history. When I approached the lead limo, the driver told me to hop into the front seat.

“We already got lost three or four times. These damn streets don’t have any numbers like they do uptown.”

“Hey, Boston’s even worse,” I replied.

He laughed. “You got a point there.”

“So you want me to be your guide?”

“Absolutely! We got one more stop to make – the Lower Eastside Democratic Association.”

“OK, I said. They’re just down the block, but if you’re really in a hurry, I know what we can do to save some time.”

“You’re the boss!”

We slowed as we approached their clubhouse. They had a small crowd, and when they saw Bobby, they went wild. They were expecting about a five-minute stop so that Kennedy and Silverman could each say a few words and maybe shake a few hands.

But I told the driver to speed up and I’d get him to Essex and Delancey in less than two minutes. When the people in the crowd realized that we weren’t stopping, some of them starting cussing and shaking their fists in the air. I looked back and saw Bobby and Justice Silverman laughing. When he caught my eye, Bobby gave me the thumbs up.

At Essex and Delancey, the police cleared a path for our motorcade, and Bobby and Justice Silverman climbed a ladder on the back of a large flatbed truck. There was an elaborate sound system, and despite all the ambient noise, Bobby could be easily heard even blocks away as he addressed the crowd.

I could not believe how many people were there. Traffic was completely cut off for as far as I could see, and there must have been several hundred thousand people covering every square inch of ground.

I got out of the limo and read the label attached to the ladder. It said, “Property of Joseph Kennedy.”

Meanwhile Bobby was teasing the crowd. Of course, he knew why so many people showed up. There was just one person they wanted to see and hear, and regretfully, that person was not Justice Silverman.

I remember his saying, “I know that all of you have been standing out here in the hot sun waiting to meet Justice Silverman…”

There was a vast roar of laughter. Nobody had ever heard anything that funny. They would probably remember that remark for years. I certainly did.

It didn’t really matter what Bobby said, or what Silverman said that day. Many of those people would vote for Silverman just on Bobby’s say-so. In a few weeks, Silverman would win in in a landslide.

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Two years later, the Reverend Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy would die from assassins’ bullets.

And now, after so many decades, I still cry whenever I hear Dion’s mournful song, “Abraham, Martin, and John.”

Here are the last four lines:

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin, and John.

Steve Slavin

Steve Slavin, a recovering economics professor, earns a living writing math and economics books. The fourth volume of his short stories, Small Crimes in the Big City, was recently published.