04 June 2008

Cooke’s Tour

June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of Robert F Kennedy’s assassination in California, on the evening he won the state towards the end of the Democratic primaries in the 1968 elections. He was the senator for New York at the time, and the event was unforgettable here, let alone in the US if you were a young Democrat.

So I will give the current senator for New York, Hillary Clinton, the benefit of the doubt when she said her reference to the assassination was only about it reminding her that the 1968 primaries had lasted all the way till June. It wasn’t an oblique allusion that the possibility of assassination was more acute for Barack than herself. Not at all.

The Time magazine covers from that year were also unforgettable. In the months prior to June, photos of RFK campaigning had “ascension” written all over them. There was the exuberant Pop Art cover by Roy Lichtenstein in late May, followed just three weeks later by a sombre portrait.

The assassination was cruel on many levels, wrote Time, but cruellest of all was the absence of surprise:

It was the unspoken expectation of the veteran campaigners who traveled with Robert Francis Kennedy that death was always somewhere out there in the crowd. Occasionally an ordinary citizen, a Negro more often than not, gave voice to the same fear: They won't let him live.

The following week Lichtenstein was dramatically used again, in a cover story about gun control. (The editors probably thought they would cheer the populace up the next week with a cover story on the rapidly ascending Aretha Franklin, but unfortunately it made reference to her then-husband’s violent temper, which caused all sorts of havoc in the home.)

I didn’t intend linking to all those stories, but Time – in an exemplary, generous use of its archives – has made it so easy and attractive.

What I especially want to point to is a haunting story I read in the English Listener in 1979. The BBC’s Listener was like the 1950s New Zealand Listener, but with no radio or TV listings, just cerebral stories and essays. It was great reading while it lasted, and in its 50th anniversary issue that year there was a transcript of an old Letter from America by Alistair Cooke.

The epistle ran over the page, and the date that it had originally appeared was at the end. So as you read it, you had no idea of what he was about to relate. Part of Cooke’s charm was that he opened with a long preamble, then took almost until his last line to get to the point. When I read this in 1979 it was so gripping I had to turn the page to confirm that Cooke had been a witness to history. This is reportage at its best; unfortunately the audio link is no longer current.

A good example of a New Zealand public institution making its archives accessible is the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Papers Past project, which has now digitised New Zealand newspapers up to 1915. It’s as compelling as YouTube, and so much less musty.

1 comment:

Matthew Oliver (NLNZ) said...

Thanks for mentioning Papers Past. You might be interested to know that we’ve just added a further 70,000 searchable pages from the Grey River Argus, a West Coast paper. It’s available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=CL1.GRA