Memories of Yale in the 1960s echoed through the Branford master’s house Monday afternoon as historian Thurston Clarke ’68 told students about a “time of great turmoil” in recent American history.
Using his new book about Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 bid for the presidency, “The Last Campaign,” as a starting point, Clarke crafted a narrative of a decade whose upheaval and turbulence mirror that of the present.
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“When I do these micro-histories,” said Clarke, the author of 10 nonfiction books and one novel, “I like something that has a reach into the present.”
About 50 students attended the event, a Master’s Tea hosted by Branford Master Steven Smith.
Clarke told a story of the Kennedy campaign that drew frequent parallels with the 2008 presidential election — a story he often peppered with anecdotes of his Yale years, when he knew both Sen. John Kerry ’66 and President George W. Bush ’68. Although he focused on his new book and its inspiration, Clarke also reflected on the current war in Iraq and on his career as a writer.
After publishing his book, “Ask Not,” about John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech in 2004, he was reluctant to write another book about the Kennedys, Clarke said. But one day, as he was researching the elder Kennedy, he came across a speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in inner-city Indianapolis on the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
That night, Clarke said, he read the speech aloud at a dinner party in Boston. “There was not a dry eye,” he said, adding that “the younger people” — mainly students — “were the most moved.” The emotional response to Kennedy’s speech inspired Clarke to write his latest book.
“You read something that grips you and you say, ‘I’ve got to do this book,’ ” he said.
Clarke quoted the younger Kennedy brother throughout his talk, often opening his book and reading Kennedy’s remarks aloud with one uplifted finger. Although, he acknowledged, Kennedy had many enemies — “they were afraid of him because he was someone who meant to do what he said” — an outpouring of grief followed Kennedy’s assassination. Clarke sought to find out why Kennedy had such a powerful effect on people in “The Last Campaign,” he said.
To Clarke, “Bobby’s assassination was a much greater shock than [that of] JFK.” When Smith asked about Clarke’s own college experience, Clarke launched into a vivid account of the Vietnam War years at Yale, telling stories of the crowd of students who used to march on the New Haven Courthouse, waving antiwar signs and chanting, “LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?”
Clarke recalled the students’ fear of being drafted and mentioned that three of his Yale classmates and two of his high-school classmates died in Vietnam.
“Johnson was our bogeyman,” he said. “People you knew were being killed! That concentrates you.”
But he also recounted more carefree times in college, where he played varsity soccer with Kerry (whom he called “one of the only seniors who was nice” to underclassmen) and went to parties with Bush. “He was not a fighter — he was a cheerful guy,” Clarke said of Bush. “He used to stand in front of DKE in a cowboy hat and boots … saying — I was known as Tony in those days — ‘Come on, Tony, come on!’ ” Clarke recalled a class of ’68 reunion Bush hosted at the White House, chuckling over the fact that while his classmates had willingly marched on the Pentagon in 1968, they were “too chicken” to take anti-Iraq War slogans into the White House.
Clarke’s mention of the war in Iraq was one of many connections he drew between the 1960s and the present. He also compared the 1960s race riots to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the unpopular Vietnam War to the current war in Iraq.
“I thought he tied pretty recent American history together with the present really nicely,” Elizabeth Ralph ’10 said.
But Clarke avoided endorsing the popular ideal of Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic party’s nominee for president, as a new Kennedy. Tempting though it might be to compare Obama to the Kennedy brothers, he said, it is politically dangerous for Obama to be as eloquent or fiery as either Kennedy because present-day Americans are too “thin-skinned” about political statements. Ultimately, though, there are similarities, Clarke said.
“I think we have a nation, again, that aches to feel noble again,” he said.
Students interviewed agreed that the 1968 election has special resonance in the current election year.
“I think what Clarke did was remind us there’s a morality to politics,” Ilan Ben-Meir ’12 said. “The great lesson of Bobby Kennedy is if you forget the moral imperative of politics, it’s just a waste of time.”
Clarke’s next book will potentially discuss the last few days of Americans in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, he said.