Discovering Alignment in the California Primary of 1968

If you were to ask anyone for a list of the most pivotal years of the second half of the 20th century, I’d be very surprised if 1968 wasn’t at the top – or very near the top – of that list.  That year saw cultural clashes across the globe, with major ramifications.  In France, protests and strikes brought the entire county to a near standstill.  Student riots at the University of Tokyo led to the cancelation of all admissions for the Class of 1972 – there was no Class of 1972 at that university.

In the US, these clashes centered primarily on the issues of racial equality and opposition to the Vietnam War.  Two antiwar candidates emerged to challenge the incumbent Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination – an extremely unusual occurrence.

The primary elections began in early 1968 and continued into the summer.  In California, the primary election was scheduled for June 6.  I had just graduated from high school the week before, so I had plenty of free time, and idealistic passion, to volunteer to work on the Bobby Kennedy campaign in my hometown of San Francisco, along with my high school buddy, whom I will call Sam.

The first few days, we were assigned to the mundane tasks that all new volunteers are typically assigned to – stuffing envelopes and making phone calls to registered Democrats on behalf of our candidate.  In and of themselves, these activities were not particularly exciting, but we were young, energetic, and filled with an idealistic sense of mission.

After two or three days of this, we had earned enough credibility with the campaign that we were invited to attend a rally with Bobby himself a day or two before the election.  I even got to shake his hand, and managed to squeeze off a close up, but blurry photograph of him as he worked the crowd.

The day before the primary itself, we were assigned a new task – a dream task, actually, for two high school boys.  Our job was to ride around San Francisco’s Mission District in the back of a bright red Mustang convertible, shouting “Vote for Bobby” slogans through a bullhorn.  To make the experience complete, our chauffeurs were two quite beautiful women, who took turns shouting similar notions in Spanish through the bullhorn.  Since they were clearly about 5 – 7 years older than we were, we had to banish all thoughts of chatting them up from our heads.  Nevertheless, it was a real thrill to ride around the Mission with these glamorous women, announcing the Gospel according to Bobby through our bullhorn and turning heads everywhere we went.  “A mission to the Mission in a Mustang” was the way one of my friends put it.

Next day was the day of the primary itself, and we were offered a much more serious challenge – so serious that we were told we didn’t have to accept it, and could refuse it if we wished.  The Kennedy campaign had determined that their best chance of success was a strong turnout in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.  The residents were overwhelmingly poor, mostly people of color, and very likely to vote for Bobby, who had strong support within the black community – if they did vote at all.  And that was the challenge – we were told that historical turnout in Potrero Hill typically ran less than 50%.

In those days, the voting system was organized around neighborhoods called precincts.  Each precinct had a polling place with a list of citizens eligible to vote there.  To vote, you had to show up at your own polling place, show your ID, go inside a voting machine, draw the curtain, and pull little levers to indicate your choices.  Your name was then crossed off the list, to prevent anyone else from trying to use your name to enter additional votes.

The Kennedy campaign gave us a list of registered Democratic voters in one of the Potrero Hill precincts, and assigned somebody with a car to drive us out there and drop us off.  Our work was very methodical.  First, we crossed off our own list anybody who had already voted.  Then we made the rounds of the apartment buildings – concrete bunker-like structures painted in military shades of dull green and gray.  They had been built to house soldiers during World War II, and afterward were converted to low-income housing.  Even to this day I can recall the rich and homey smells of dinner cooking as it permeated the hallways.

It is amusing to contemplate our innocence looking backward – two high school kids from the Sunset District, at the opposite end of the city, venturing into “the projects” on a quest to save its citizens, whether they wanted to be saved or not.  In today’s parlance, I think it’s safe to say that we fairly reeked of “white privilege”, with absolutely no awareness of the ironies implicit in our mission.  Such was the naïve idealism of the times.

The reactions of our hosts varied.  Some regarded us with suspicion, although there were fewer of these than we might have expected.  By far the dominant attitude was one of quizzical amusement – they could see the ironies, even if we remained blind to them.  A few were genuinely curious about our motivations.  Some even put it quite explicitly – “Why are you two little white boys coming all the way out here to talk to us?” if I remember correctly.  A few even seemed to be touched by our answers.

Real sincerity is infectious – when you really, truly believe that some path is for the best, others will take hope from your own convictions, and act on them.

On our first round of the precinct we knocked on every door where there was a registered Democrat who had not yet voted.  Then we returned to the polling place, crossed off the names of anyone who had voted since our previous visit, and headed back for a second round of door-knocking.  The second round was followed by a third round, which was beginning to try the patience of some of the people we visited.  We finished that third round just about a half hour before the polls closed at 8pm.

Checking our list one last time, we learned that we had managed to generate a 90+% turnout in the precinct  — not bad for a historical norm of sub-50%.  A driver from the Kennedy campaign picked us up to take us to the victory party at California Hall, where we all shared the jubilation as the polls came in and showed a strong victory for Bobby – at least for the first several hours.

Sometime between 11pm and midnight we left the party and walked down to Market Street.  The party was still going strong, but we didn’t want to miss the last L Taraval streetcar home.  While we waited for the streetcar, we struck up a conversation with a newspaper vendor.  To this day, I wonder what a newspaper vendor was doing on Market Street that late at night.  Perhaps my memory is faulty – perhaps it was just another rider waiting for the streetcar home, or perhaps just someone hanging out on Market.

In any case, this guy was listening to the radio, and gave us the news that Bobby had been shot down in LA.  It’s hard to explain the feelings that washed over us in that moment – shock, grief, anger, of course, but also a sense of dread and foreboding – if this was a world where such a thing could happen, then who could be sure of anything?  Who could be safe – at any time, any place, in any way?   Our naïve idealism, which had sustained us throughout the day and the week, crumbled in a heartbeat.  We were robbed of our political virginity.

Instead of heading home, we decided to return to California Hall.  Perhaps we felt a strong desire to share our grief with others who would be as devastated as we were.  By the time we got back there, the news had reached the party.  Everyone was in tears.  There wasn’t really much to do but commiserate, and wonder collectively what would happen next.  So after a short visit we headed back to Market street.  I’m assuming the streetcars were still running.  We certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford a taxi home.

Even after his assassination, Bobby’s magic held on for a while.  A group of his campaign workers decided to form a new organization – the “Kennedy Action Corps”, that would continue to pursue the sort of community organizing and political activism that had characterized the campaign.  I still have a button – a black-on-white peace sign formed from Bobby’s initials – “R – F – K”.  I even attended the first meeting.  I’m not sure if there was ever a second one.  Eugene McCarthy became the standard bearer for the anti-war faction of the Democratic party.  The issues remained, but the magic just wasn’t there.

I don’t think I need to work too hard to convince you that this was one of the most memorable days of my life.  The emotional roller coaster– from the highs of our success at the polling place to our desolation at the end of the day – would alone have made it unforgettable.

But the day also held important lessons for me – lessons about real political power, and effective political action.  The more obvious lesson was learning how solid political results can be achieved at the grass roots level.  Think about it – two boys, aged 18 and 19, who couldn’t even legally vote at that time, were able to account for an entire precinct – possibly as many as 100 votes or more.  Leverage that formula for success across enough precincts and presto – you’ve won an election.

The second, perhaps deeper lesson is one about human nature, namely that most people need to be catalyzed to take action, even when that action is in their best interests.  To this day, in spite of the fact that my own political views have shifted frequently over the years, I believe that voting for Bobby was truly in the best interests of the citizens of Potrero Hill on that day.  But we all, as humans, tend to be overburdened with tasks, obligations, choices.  Many of us need someone in front of us to remind us of priorities, and galvanize us into “doing the right thing”.  That’s why preachers, salesmen, and political activists all exist.  And sometimes, they perform a valuable service, especially among those who have lost their trust in a system that has not worked well for them.

But if you’re going to venture into the persuasion business, it’s also important to know what really matters when you try to encourage someone to take action.  My experiences that day led me to believe that it was our own sincerity, even in the face of our all-too-obvious naivete, which convinced many of the people we visited to head for the voting booth.  As the sales books will often put it, crudely but accurately, you have to really believe in the product if you’re going to sell it.  In many cases, that’s enough.

We look back on the Kennedys somewhat differently now.  Was Bobby really sincere about the beliefs he espoused during his brief political crusade?  Or was he simply a clever opportunist who grabbed the chance to appeal to people who were being under-served by the reigning political machines of the time?  It’s a great question for historians and psychologists to ponder, but as far as my own experience on that day goes, it doesn’t really matter.  What mattered on that day was that I was inspired.  What mattered is that I was deeply sincere about the beliefs I held.

And I think it was our personal sincerity, rather than the fact that our arguments were logically compelling (for the most part they were simply bald assertions that “Bobby really cares about you”)  that motivated the citizens of Potrero Hill to go out and vote that day.  Real sincerity is infectious – when you really, truly believe that some path is for the best, others will take hope from your own convictions, and act on them.  They may even come to be believers themselves.

But these experiences, and these lessons,  as powerful as they may seem, are not the primary reason why I’m writing this story for you.  Something else was in play on that day, something a lot harder to define or even articulate.  Something I’ll call “alignment”.

For many years afterward, as I looked back on that day, what stood out in my mind as my primary experience was not the accomplishments themselves, but how easily, joyfully, and even effortlessly, we seemed to achieve them.  “Why?” I would ask myself.  What we accomplished was truly amazing – how could it have been so easy?

I ran the usual gamut of so-called explanations (e.g.  we didn’t know is would be difficult, so it wasn’t) but none of them seemed to really carry the day.  The mystery deepened as I experienced other, similar days, most notably my daughter’s kidney transplant, that should have been both strenuous and stressful, but were marked by the same effortless accomplishment – the sort that Lao Tzu describes in the Tao Te Ching.

“Why?” I would ask myself.  What we accomplished was truly amazing – how could it have been so easy?

If you’ve played a sport of any kind (I’ll use basketball as an example), you’ve no doubt experienced days when you are forcing your shots – where even a simple layup can’t seem to find its way into the basket.  But I’d bet you’ve also experienced days when you are “in the groove”, and anything you throw up there manages to go in.  On those days, your mind, your body, the ball, the court, and perhaps even the opposing team, all seemed to be “aligned” in an easy, fluid process that leads to results that in retrospect seem almost pre-ordained.

Same thing happens in the world of work – some projects are difficult because we are “forcing our shots” in our job, while other similar projects are fields of effortless attainment.  I’ve come to believe that the sort of effortless attainment I experienced on that day was the result of an alignment – myself, Sam, the Kennedy Campaign, and especially the citizens of Potrero Hill.  But more than that, I’ve come to believe that our endeavors were aligned with the purposes of Heaven on that day, and with our own destiny, which by definition must always be in alignment with the purposes of Heaven.

So there you have it – for some reason, our efforts on June 6, 1968 were aligned strongly with our own destinies, and also with Heaven’s designs.  Now please don’t ask me what Heaven’s interest in the California Primary might have been, or whether Heaven reversed its judgment in the evening – I have no idea.  In my experience, the designs of Heaven really are as inscrutable as they seem.  But in those few rare instances where I’ve gotten a glimpse of them, it’s clear to me that they are benevolent beyond our limited ability to comprehend.

I don’t believe you can distill alignment down to what engineers would call a “repeatable process” – if you could, you’d be coming very close (maybe too close!) to discerning the purposes of Heaven on a regular basis.  More likely, you will stumble into alignment with Heaven on unpredictable occasions – which nevertheless are occasions to cherish deeply and make the most of.

But I do believe that there are steps you can take to prepare yourself for these occasions – by practicing the habits that form the necessary conditions for alignment to occur.  Intentionality, as described in Shimenawa Virtue #5, is one of those habits.  Attention, deep attention, to your current situation (Virtue #4) is another.  The humility of looking for answers rather than assuming them, is a third.  These requested tasks, in fact, constitute your destiny, if you are willing to align humbly, pay attention to discern them, and form the unshakeable intention of fulfilling them.