Eighty days after Bobby Kennedy kissed me he was killed. I don’t know why it happened — either the kiss, or the killing. Each time, he was caught up in the joy of the moment. Both times, he got whisked away.
As happenstance had it, Kennedy was frolicking with friends in the back seat of an inconspicuous car crawling down Fifth Avenue when he spotted me — a young, vibrant, redheaded Breck-replica in a Kelly green, worsted wool coat, weaving through revelers lining Fifth Avenue for the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
I was pugnacious. The flock in front of the 666 building was so sardined, it turned my two-minute sprint to the Primeburger into a twenty-minute tussle.
Hearing the crowds crescendo as a car of paraders slowed to a stop behind me, I poised myself to push through an advancing pocket of people.
Suddenly, someone grabbed my elbow and pivoted me into his arms, gently tilting my chin upwards before planting a quick kiss. His thicket of hair reflected like flax in the midday sun veiling two hazel, sleep stripped eyes conferring a dilatory blink – not unlike that of a tomcat purring thanks.
Then, just as instantaneously, he was hustled back to his locus in that long procession trekking towards his untoward future.
“You’re never going to guess what happened to me,” I nudged my friend, Marion, during the elevator ride up to our offices at Fuller & Smith & Ross the next morning. “Bobby Kennedy kissed me.”
“Ohmigod, you gotta be kidding!” Marion gasped. “What’d’ya do?”
“Do? What could I do? I was stunned. That’s all.”
“Did anyone see?”
“Well, yes. I guess. How could they not?”
“I mean, anyone here. Because it might not set well. Him being in the running now and all.”
That hadn’t occurred to me. “It was just a kiss,” I dismissed.
“Yeah,” Marion nodded. “But Bobby Kennedy for cripes sake. Who gets kissed by a Kennedy?”
“Who doesn’t?” I scoffed.
Fuller & Smith & Ross is an advertising agency footnoted in history. As Manager of Purchasing & In-House Printing I’d been privy to a confidential meeting detailing departmental procedures for handling the 21 million dollar account we’d secured two months earlier. My first assignment was to have business cards engraved for our new client. The inscription: Richard Nixon, 577 Chestnut Ridge Road, Wood Cliff Lake, New Jersey 07675.
Upon completion and delivery to his Park Avenue address, Nixon graciously sent me an autographed card. Seeing his inked signature on that ivory colored Bristol board proved pretty heady stuff to me — a small town transplant and political novitiate.
I was young, eager, and altruistic back then; a cookie cutter copy of that last generation of Americans who hadn’t a true clue as to what went on inside our nation’s governing bodies or outside our autonomous lives.
So, while I excelled at my job of vetting vendors, overseeing offset runs, getting offices decorated, equipment updated, carpets cleaned, prototypes printed, supplies stocked, and locks on doors changed whenever a colleague left — it wasn’t until I was entrusted with the billing of telephone lines linked to a network of chameleon operatives that I started to sink with the sinking-in.
“Cause and effect, people,” was the daily drill. “Never has so much money been amassed to elect a candidate. Our targeted buyouts of principal advertising airtime will efficaciously shut the Democrats out. Cause and effect.”
Try to remember, or imagine: In 1968, PBS was still in the proposal stage, there were just three major networks, prime time was essentially over by 10 p.m., a 30 second spot in the top rated markets cost about ten grand, and a million dollars was an unimaginable sum to most. But 21 million? That was whew!
By day, Nixon commandeered Town Hall meetings answering random questions in primary states while being filmed at three angles — front, back, and side. By night, our media technicians removed audio from side and back-shot tapes, replacing it with Nixon voiceovers of perfected responses. These were the videos offered to the media for viewing and airing. This was the foundation for creating many of the 15, 30, 45 and 60-second spots and news feeds.
Apparently, audience participants were so elated at seeing themselves on television that they failed to notice Nixon’s edited answers. At least, I heard no rumors of suspicion outside the office. I saw no evidence of complaint.
But within our ranks, long hours involving similar scenarios (and the disillusionment such capers caused) was taking its toll.
Perhaps that’s why Kennedy’s assassination registered as an amplified aghast to us. Because, by the time he announced his candidacy, we’d already been entrenched in a predetermined campaign victory for 10 weeks, believing everyone working on the inside of both political parties concurred from the get-go. Our jobs seemed only a matter of proper execution.
Sure, Bobby Kennedy added glamour and excitement to the illusion being painted for an impressionable public. Sensational headlines and endless editorials promised he could change things. And would.
But factuality was, by the time Kennedy won the California primary, every projection we’d been made privy to in January had confirmed itself by June. Ad copy, speeches, rebuttals, and press releases were written and delivered verbatim, leading a nation of primary voters to the polls and persuading them to push the Republican button. We knew if the Democrats had been wealthier in ’68, only the names would have changed to protect the process.
It’s no wonder a spate of shame beset our rank and file the day Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. His was an incomprehensible loss for no comprehendible reason. Arguments erupted. A mutiny ravaged the art department. Secretiveness ensued. Most of us continued to carry on until the battle was won in November, but long before then we were lost.
So, it’s little wonder I and others resigned within weeks of Nixon’s victory without revealing the true reason for our departures — that suffocating feeling of complicity and defenselessness when slapped in the face with reality. Relentlessly.
As a souvenir I kept the screen-printed Peanuts prototype of Snoopy endorsing the Nixon/Agnew ticket that was spurned as a possible campaign poster by our California office after Charles Schultz threatened suit. Saving it seemed somehow fitting. I put Nixon’s business card in my pocket. I surrendered my two tickets to an Inaugural Ball and left my 18kt. gold, RN lapel pin in an ashtray on the desk. I signed the purchase order to change the locks on my office door.
Marion and I were alone on an elevator going down when she asked, “Did you ever think yours was his kiss of death?”
Angst kept me from answering.
“You know,” she nudged. “Cause and effect. It’s all we’ve heard for eleven months.”
“Well, go figure. If he hadn’t stopped to kiss you, he’d have been five minutes faster for the rest of his life. He’d have finished his speech and left the hotel, alive. Maybe you were put on earth to slow him down. So he could meet his destiny on time. D’ya think?”
“Gee, Mare. Thanks for that,” I groaned. “And, no. I don’t think.”
But, yes, I have. And, yes, I do. Occasionally, while maneuvering crowds. Crossing streets. Riding elevators. Hearing cars slow. On some March mornings and one June afternoon. Whenever wearing Kelly green.
And ever since.
# # #
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(This freshly edited, updated essay was first published in The Antiquarian Magazine © 1985, More © 1995, and in Venus Magazine © 2011 by Marguerite Quantaine © 1985, 1995, 2011 & 2013.)
Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
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