Americans Are Indifferent to the Past ... Tear It Down, Look Ahead

Patt Morrison, a reporter for the LAT, in a radio commentary for the BBC series, "State Of The Union: Americans and Their Past" (Oct. 11, 2004):

... Americans in the main do not know whether the guy working in the next cubicle is Armenian or Turkish or Guatemalan, and they do not care. What matters is, can he meet a deadline? Can she make a payroll?

Americans believe unswervingly that the future is theirs for the making.

Unfortunately, they sometimes think the past is just another empty canvas and can be remade as they wish too.

The American politician and former ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Once upon a time, he was right.

Now historical fact is just selected and snipped away and packaged into whatever form its manipulators want it to be - whether it is Oliver Stone's fanciful film about Richard Nixon, or the swift boat veterans' revisionism of John Kerry's service record, or the plain truth that the world, unlike a John Wayne movie, does not always wear the black and white costumes of villain and hero.

For me, an unhappy incident in this re-writing of the past involves two sterling and highly regarded men: Rafer Johnson, the gold medal Olympic athlete, and Rosey Grier, the football player turned minister.

The incident came to my attention because the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles is about to be torn down to build a school.

The Ambassador's kitchen is where Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. But happier ghosts also haunt the Ambassador's shabby grounds.


The hotel is 83-years-old, which is a great age in Los Angeles, and through its lobby has passed most of the city's celebrity history.

The Ambassador is where the future Marilyn Monroe studied modelling with a company which I assure you was called the Emmeline Snively agency.

Nikita Khrushchev and John F Kennedy smoked and drank here, though not together. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald sneaked out in the dead of night after setting fire to their unpaid bill.

The Ambassador's Cocoanut Grove nightclub was ornamented with fake palm trees salvaged from the set of Rudolf Valentino's film, The Sheik.

Its stage and dance floor drew talents from Joan Crawford and Irene Castle to Nat King Cole and Barbra Streisand.

Charles Lindbergh, Ronald Reagan, J Edgar Hoover - all of them passed through the Ambassador. Even Angelenos who have never set foot here know the place, which is a stunning boast in a city where the wrecking balls never sleep.

There are voices calling for bulldozing the place, the Kennedy family's foremost among them.

Other voices - like that of Diane Keaton, the actress - are calling to preserve the place, as a scrapbook of Los Angeles history, and as a reminder of a momentous and calamitous event.

They are calling to save the Ambassador as we have preserved the Texas school book depository in Dallas, the city where President John F Kennedy was killed, or the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jnr died.

If Americans do not always know the broad storyline of their history, they do know its bullet points.

Rosey Grier and Rafer Johnson were walking with their friend Bobby Kennedy when Kennedy was shot just past midnight on 5 June 1968, after he had won the California presidential primary.

A man named Sirhan Sirhan began shooting, and Kennedy went down.

There was a struggle.

Grier and Johnson had never found the need to speak of it to each other all these years, but now that the Ambassador is in the headlines once more, their joined recall divides like a fork in the road of memory.

Each man has told me that he was the one who got the gun away from the assassin.

Over the years the assassin himself, Sirhan, has told me and various colleagues at the Los Angeles Times that he did it. Now, more recently, he has said he is innocent, and a web of conspiracy theories still spun around him guarantees to keep unsolved in some minds the simple historic question: "Who killed Robert Kennedy?" ...

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