By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Contributor
The Warrior River rolls into Tuscaloosa every day, fresh and clean with determined energy and power. That is the way, precisely, that Robert F. Kennedy and his presidential campaign swept into the city March 21, 1968.
I was among the hundreds of supporters gathered outside the airport chain link to greet him. The size and glee of the crowd surprised me. The Kennedys were not thought loved in Alabama, with reason.
Bobby’s previous and only other visit to Tuscaloosa was June, 1963 when, as U.S. Attorney General, he came in to shoo Gov. George Wallace from the schoolhouse door, while the nation watched.
That dreary, late spring afternoon in 1968, though, I could feel the positive energy in the crowd at the airport.
Kennedy’s flight in from Atlanta was delayed two hours by rain. Sporadic drizzle was a minor distraction and served to sort of glue our determination to greet the man. And finally the plane landed.
If I was surprised by the number of wellwishers, Kennedy must have been astonished. His plane, at his direction, taxied as close to the fence as it could. When he stepped out on the plane’s stairwell, it was like the coming of a king. The crowd erupted.
He waved, the throng roared. He got into his limo and it started to drive away, then it turned and headed right for us, and put its bumper a hundred feet from the fence. RFK got out, visibly moved, and climbed on the hood. I’ve never, in person, seen anyone so scared.
Somewhere inside him, some atavistic prescience must’ve chimed a shrill warning about an assassin’s bullet like the one that felled his brother the president just five months after RFK opened the schoolhouse door.
What a conflict must have warred in his mind. He felt he could not fail to acknowledge the palpable love of the crowd, but he knew that a crazy could be hiding in it.
Once he left the terminal (who came up with such an ominous name for where planes land?), there would be security, though not the thorough protection candidates enjoy today, but at that moment he was open to harm and he knew it and he showed it.
He was ashen. He was literally shaking. His hands shook and his voice shook with it. But it was strong, and he was inspired. He said he was inspired.
I wish I could remember some of his exact words, but mostly I remember he said our presence filled him with confidence and hope for the future. He said that so long as people like us responded to messages of confidence and hope, that there is always confidence and hope for the future. He spoke for maybe five minutes, came down and touched hands through the fence. Scared to death.
I’ve never seen anything braver than that, or, I guess, that brave.
The assassin’s bullet found him, of course, three short months later, June 5, in Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy, dead at 43. Every bit the brave warrior.
Counterpoint to the Warrior River is Lost Creek. It meanders through Walker County, twisting on itself so that it hardly knows whether it is coming or going. For a while, parts of it were so spoiled that folks were disinclined to trust its fish. Its embayment settles some of that before it enters the Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork near Empire.
That’s the way it goes. For every Warrior River, brave and clean to inspire us, there’s a Lost Creek, unsure and muddy to make us doubt. And for every Robert Kennedy, there are too many lost politicians to count.
For the moment, my mind turns to the Alabama Ethics Commission, which did not win any “Profiles in Courage” awards this past week in its decision to let wrongdoers off the hook.
When candidates of political committees don’t follow the laws intended to ensure we know who is paying for political speech, the Secretary of State’s office can penalize them in the form of fines. That’s exactly what Secretary John Merrill’s office did. But 31 candidates or committees appealed their fines to the Ethics Commission and every single fine was overturned.
If that weren’t bad enough, know that this is the third time the “Ethics” Commission has overturned every fine.
Merrill was pretty steamed about the whole thing, and well he might be.
I’ve reached out to the Commission with some questions that might shed some light on how they operate. I’ll let you know what I hear, when and if I hear it. Let us not hold our breaths. When a body appointed by politicians frequently makes decisions to favor politicians when they’ve erred, it calls judgment into question.
Perhaps the Commission had good reason to waive every single fine that was appealed to it. Soon as you can think of one, let me know ASAP. I don’t know that I’ll be hearing from “Ethics”.
We need more Bobby Kennedys, willing to step out to try to do what’s right even when they know their political life is at stake. Or even life itself.
One of those kinds of people was the late Carl Elliott of Jasper, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and winner of the very first “Profiles in Courage” award. I’ll tell you about him next week. He was a friend of mine.
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War.