Forty years ago today, I spent the day on a packed airliner over the Atlantic, bound from Glasgow to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The world was stumbling through a turbulent year. During my year's study at Edinburgh University, I had glimpsed my society from abroad. I'd watched the news clips of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and of the rioting that followed. I'd watched the Johnson administration drawn ever deeper into a war that made no sense. My British friends were astounded that America in the 20th century seemed determined to repeat each and every mistake that the British had made in the 19th.
For these and other reasons, I had mixed feelings about coming home. When we landed at JFK and filed off the airplane, the airport was strangely silent, funereal. Passengers and airline employees wept openly. We soon learned the reason.
While we were in flight, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles.
Less than five years after the death of President John Kennedy, and just weeks after the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation had lost another young voice of promise and hope. And Bobby, with his tousled hair and weathered smile, had seemed the greatest promise of them all.
Dazed by the news, I wandered into a coffee shop and stopped at the door to gawk at the back of a New York cop, sitting at the counter, his service revolver hanging in its holster. During my year in the U.K., where handguns are banned and shootings are rare, my only experience with guns was in museums.
But now I was home.
At first, the murder felt like another shot fired by that same evil, right-wing conspiracy that killed King and JFK. But the conspiracy theories never worked. Like his brother, Bobby Kennedy was killed by a young wacko with a gun.
So it became a commentary on guns. How can a society continue to operate while allowing crazy people to carry loaded weapons designed only to kill other people? Yet, even then, I was aware that we are not Olde England, that we are shaped by revolution and the mythology of the Wild West, and that you can't blithely ban handguns unless you have a practical way to deal with the countless millions already in circulation; and nobody knows how to do that.
So if we'll never know why Bobby Kennedy was killed, we can still ask: What if he had not been? What if Sirhan Sirhan had decided on that fateful day to watch the speech on TV, or to take a day at the beach?
Given the tight margin in the fall of 1968, Kennedy probably would have been nominated and elected in November. There would have been no President Nixon, no Spiro Agnew, no Watergate plumbers.
We can never know what Kennedy would have done with the office. We assume he would have got the nation out of Southeast Asia; but we also know that Bobby had been a staunch cold warrior who worried about Communist China's influence in the region. To some degree, he had helped get us into Vietnam, making it far more difficult to pull us out.
I would like to believe he would have pursued racial desegregation and women's rights and universal health insurance. But Bobby's politics had been shifting, so who knows?
Perhaps the lesson to be drawn this remarkable week, as a transcendent Sen. Barack Obama emerges as the Democratic nominee for president, is that elections matter. Forty years ago, it mattered a great deal that Bobby Kennedy was not elected president, and that Richard Nixon was.
This year, nobody knows what Obama or Sen. John McCain would do in the White House. But it still matters which of them is elected. In 2008, much like 1968, the nation yearns to extricate itself from an overseas war and focus on what's happening at home. Wherever we sit on the ideological spectrum, we yearn for new vision and direction. For many, Obama seems to offer the same charisma and intelligence and eloquence that RFK promised in '68.
And as a nation, we are quietly, desperately afraid we will squander the opportunity.