11/01/2010 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chris Matthews, Bobby Kennedy and My Ethical Dilemma

The publisher said do it. The publicist said do it. The agent said do it. My friends said do it. Above all the landlord's insistence that I come up with the rent said, "Do it."

But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Until I happened to watch a recent Chris Matthews Show. And his panelists -- prominent thoughtful journalists all -- persuaded me that maybe it was okay to do it.

The issue that Sunday was the Bush tax cuts. The question: Was Obama's attempt to rein them in good policy or good politics? Which in and of itself turned out to be false dichotomy. For the panel of distinguished journalists concluded that if Obama's plan turned out to be politically popular it would, by definition, be good policy. Hence the only question about eliminating the biggest tax cut for the rich in the wealthiest nation on earth was this: would it help or hurt Obama's approval ratings?

Well, a false dichotomy is hardly earth-shattering. But having just written the last page of a novel about Bobby Kennedy -- and having fused, to some extent, with my protagonist -- I found something dismaying about all of this. Not one of the distinguished panelists raised the very first question Bobby Kennedy would've asked: would extension of the tax cuts be moral? Would it be moral for yet another child in the inner city to bitten in the face by a rat while the wealthiest one percent received a second opportunity to go shopping for yachts courtesy of the United States Congress? Would it be moral for yet another infant in the Mississippi Delta to starve to death while the wealthiest one percent got another opportunity to purchase, perhaps, a third yacht?

Not one question about inequity, fairness, simple right or wrong. Not one comment about the human toll.

If our most prominent journalists aren't viewing issues through a moral lens, then maybe, I thought, we really do need to remember Bobby Kennedy. We need to remember how this man turned his personal suffering on its head and became, in his final years, the embodiment of compassion. And, how, for the duration of that 82-day presidential campaign, his own anguished soul became at one with the soul of an anguished nation.

We need to remember what it means to feel visceral empathy with the dispossessed, and to take concomitant action regardless of the political consequences. We need to remember who we might still become, though it's getting late in the day.

The forging of RFK's soul -- from the embodiment of ruthless to the embodiment of compassion was a lifelong process; a process that took on greater and greater speed until this spiritual shooting star of a man flamed out at the Ambassador Hotel.

Was his transformation authentic? As Bobby Kennedy lay on the floor that night he repeated these words. "Is everyone all right? Is anyone else hurt?" Over and over until the darkness set in. I don't think a man can lie about his essence at a time like that.

Me? I was fourteen. Scholar athlete on the outside. Tormented on the inside. I had mythic dreams about Bobby for many years. I wrote a novella about him in 1993. Then recently, at the end of my literary career, revisited that novella. And found to my surprise, that the revised version was more than double in length.

A few weeks ago I informed my editor here at HuffPo that I'd finished the book, and that it was about to come out. My editor informed me, in turn, that while HuffPo didn't assign books for review, other columnists could. But reviewed or not, I was welcome to do what many columnists do: publish an excerpt in my slot.

Well I got lucky. A colleague wrote a review.

However, only a small percentage of the HuffPo readership turns to the HuffPo book section. So that's when everyone said do it. Publish an excerpt in your slot. And that's when my conscience bucked and heaved against using my slot for such shameless self-promotion.

No way could I bring myself to do it. Until Chris Matthews came to my rescue.

The premise of the novel? Saint Peter can't decide if Bobby belongs in Heaven or Hell. So he sends him back to earth ostensibly to test his mettle, to put him to work as a regular Joe, as a furniture mover in Seattle. But Peter sets a trap for which Bobby falls. He winds up in prison, in isolation no less, and is tormented by hallucinations about his previous life. In the excerpt that follows he is dehydrated, near-death and delirious.

As he lay in the cell Bobby ached for his kids.

Not that they were kids anymore.

They were adults in the world who had kids of their own.

Except for David, Bobby thought. Except for David.

He remembered his dead little boy. He remembered a spring afternoon. It was the spring after Jack was killed.

He'd come home for a nap of all things. Yes, he, Bobby Kennedy, the tireless Bobby, had suddenly left the office. Had just wandered off without saying a word about where he was going or why.

It was a warm muggy day. Baseball weather. Or so it struck Bobby when he saw his son David sitting on the broad front steps. Sitting and thinking his secret pensive child thoughts.

Bobby chucked his little boy on the chin. "Want to play catch?" he said.

David grinned, but then he got a troubled look.

"It's okay. You'll do fine," Bobby said.

"I know," David said. But he looked scared.

"It's okay if you drop the ball."

"I know," David said.

"Don't you want to play catch?"

"I do," David said, and he did. David lived to play catch with his daddy. And he didn't mind dropping the ball. He knew Daddy understood when he dropped it. But what Daddy didn't know was that he had a new fear. He was afraid of getting hit by the ball. Of missing completely so that the ball hit his face. Or his arms. Or his legs. Or the worst place.
"I'll go get the gloves," David said.

He scampered up the stairs and into the house. He got the gloves from the sports equipment room. Then it was on to the bathroom for the towels. There were a number of sizes to choose from. He stuffed a couple of small ones up his sleeves. And used a big one to cover his tummy. And forced some thin cotton towels down the legs of his pants. And put a thick one in front of his wiener.

He emerged from the house with the gloves.

Bobby looked at his towel-stuffed son.

Bobby didn't know what to do.

"I won't hurt you," he said.

"I know," David said.

"I promise to throw it real soft."

David looked relieved. Well, a little relieved.

"So will you take out the towels?" Bobby said.

David tried to look puzzled. "What towels?"

Well this was too much. Something snapped. Something usually reserved for dirtbags like Hoffa. Or for lazy assistants. Or Chester Bowles. Something having to do with worry and grief and LBJ and Mafia hit men.

"The towels in your pants!" Bobby yelled. "And the damned sissy towels in your shirt! Don't you ever lie to me. Is that understood?"

"Are you going to hit me?" David said.

"Am I going to what?" Bobby said.

"You can hit me if you want to," David said.

Bobby gazed at his puffed-out son.

Bobby realized he wanted to hit him.

Bobby covered his face with his hands. "Oh my God," Bobby sobbed. "Jesus Christ, God forgive me."

"It's okay to hit me," David said.

That excerpt was, as noted, set in 1968, as Bobby Kennedy lay dying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel.

And dying with him, the National Soul. Or at least the best part of our soul.

And now, forty-two years later? Days before we go to the polls and define ourselves. Decide if we are really here to help one another or if, as the Tea Party leaders insist, that's just so much malarkey. And subversive malarkey at that. That it's time to put this brothers' and sisters' keepers nonsense to rest once and for all.

The similarities in the times are eerie. Fear is once again running rampant across the land. The sort of fear that feeds on itself and leads to the politics of blame, hate and inexorably, to bloodshed.

The source of the fear?

I don't pretend to have the answers.

Just some educated guesses.

Lies. Hard times. Demagogues. Moral cowardice.

The ingredients for a perfect storm

No military power can take us down but the fanatic within is on a bender, unchecked by by our most prominent journalists.

So while I thank Chris Matthews' guests for solving my ethical dilemma, I have a request for them. For them and for all thoughtful journalists. And for my neighbors as well -- the ones I know, the ones I don't -- who are, like me, obscure. In fact maybe this request is especially for them.
Did I say request? Strike that. It's lobbying, folks. Good old wheeling and dealing, just like the big boys do it. You know: martinis, junkets, golf games in Vegas. Just a harmless bit of "honest graft" as Plunkitt called it.

So here's the deal. Here's my offer. You don't have to buy my new book. You don't have to read the Huffington Post review. You're off the hook.

However, in exchange for this -- well, bribe -- please do as Bobby Kennedy did. Start asking the moral questions first, the political questions second. Or better yet, just skip the political questions.

Does the candidate's stances on the issues come from a place of fear, blame and hate, or from a place that speaks to the best in us, to our generosity of spirit?

Does he or she appeal to a generous or stinting people?

Is the candidate telling the truth?

And the question I wish Chris Matthews and other prominent journalists would ask: on what if any issue does the candidate feel so much passion, so much visceral empathy, that he or she would be willing to lose?

I'm afraid I'll be wishing for a while. And Tuesday is just around the corner. So it's back to the simple, I suppose. To questions of simple right and simple wrong. And maybe that's for the best.

For we vote not just for the one on the ballot but for who we choose to be. Which part of ourselves will we follow?

The adult who seeks the truth and helps his neighbor in hard times? Or the child who, upon catching a whiff of fear, turns away from his brothers, turns away from his sisters, and stuffs himself with towels?

Book excerpt from Humping Credenzas With the Late Bobby Kennedy: A Convict's True Account. (Wyatt-Mackenzie, October 2010)
By Robert Ellis Gordon