Journalism / New Haven Register

Robert F. Kennedy recalled as an ‘inspiration’

By Rachael Scarborough King
June 5, 2008

Gazing at the yellowing campaign posters spread out on a table in his office, Guilford First Selectman Carl Balestracci recalled the moment 40 years ago when he learned that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Balestracci had watched Kennedy’s win in the California Democratic presidential primary on television and went to bed after midnight. About 45 minutes later, he said, one of his middle school students from New Haven, where he was teaching at the time, called.

“Mr. B.,” the student said, “they shot the president again.”

Kennedy, actually a senator from New York, was shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles 40 years ago today — in the early hours of June 5, 1968. He died the following day.

Balestracci, who volunteered in Kennedy’s New York office, opened a time capsule this week that included the posters with iconic images of the young, smiling Kennedy.

The collection also includes several campaign buttons with slogans like “Sock it to ’em,” and one with black crepe ribbon that Balestracci helped make for the funeral in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

For many young liberals, Balestracci said, the assassination led to despair and disillusionment, coming the same year as the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and riots across the country.

But for some local, active young people — including now-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman — the events led them to dedicate their lives to politics.

Balestracci, Lieberman and Guilford resident Bill Mack were founders of the Connecticut Committee for Robert F. Kennedy for President, which formed in spring 1968 to support Kennedy’s candidacy. But barely two months later, Kennedy was dead.

“It was such a short period,” Mack said. “That’s the way I remember it — we barely got started and it was over.”

After the assassination, Balestracci said, he and Lieberman were among another group, the Kennedy Action Corps, whose members agreed to continue to “pursue the ideals of Robert Kennedy.”

Lieberman won election to the state Senate in 1970, and became a U.S. senator in 1988. Balestracci worked on several political campaigns, and after his teaching career, ran for first selectman in Guilford.

Lieberman, I-Conn., said the period was decisive for him.

“Working for Bobby Kennedy for president in 1968 was one of the best, formative experiences of my early political life,” Lieberman, 66, said. “I really believed in Kennedy, and was heartbroken when he was killed. But I was left with his extraordinary example of public service as an inspiration. And I was left also with some wonderful friends, like Carl Balestracci who I met when we worked together for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and who remain dear friends and colleagues to this day.”

At the time, Mack was chairman of the Guilford Democratic Town Committee. But after Kennedy’s death, he said, his involvement in politics waned, mainly for personal reasons. A lawyer, he went back to school to become an architect, and was supporting a young family.

He now serves as an alternate on Guilford’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

“I really sort of turned off from politics until now with the (Barack) Obama campaign,” said Mack, now 75. “I’ve always marveled about this because of Joe (Lieberman) being involved, and he ended up running for vice president of the United States (in 2000), and I’m just poking around in Guilford building houses.”

Mack is not the first to note a similarity between Obama and both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. When Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy endorsed Obama earlier this year, Kennedy said he believed the now-presumptive Democratic nominee could take up the mantle of his older brothers.

And Balestracci, a Democrat who is also an Obama supporter, pointed to an article in Look magazine from May 1963 that highlighted Kennedy’s “famous prediction that a Negro would become President within 40 years.”

Five years past that deadline, Obama is the first African-American to be a major party’s presumptive nominee for president.

Balestracci recalled canvassing for Kennedy in Harlem, N.Y., 40 years ago. In one of the apartments he entered, a woman sat on a sofa below three portraits — a picture of Jesus flanked by those of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

In his Guilford office today, Balestracci has a prominent photo of the two brothers in the Oval Office during JFK’s presidency.

“It was unlike, I think, anything anybody had ever seen — the absolute passion people had for and against him,” he said of working on the campaign. “He felt that politics in the U.S., as it was, had to change. He really advocated for people.”

Balestracci attended Kennedy’s funeral in New York and rode to Washington, D.C., on a train ahead of one carrying the coffin. Thousands of people lined up along the tracks to watch it pass.

Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

But, that election season has continued to reverberate in the American political process. After 1968, Balestracci noted, primaries became increasingly important in deciding the nominees for president. Previously, the decision had been mostly made during the parties’ nominating conventions.

Kennedy declared his candidacy in March 1968 and campaigned for less than three months. By contrast, Obama entered the race for president nearly 16 months ago.

“Even though he died, his campaign style and whatnot changed politics,” Balestracci said of Robert Kennedy. “It was like a year that changed a generation.”

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