Thurston Clarke: Recalls "turmoil" of JFK era in Yale talk

Historians in the News

Memories of Yale in the 1960s echoed through the Branford master’s house Monday afternoon as historian Thurston Clarke ’68 told students about a “time of great turmoil” in recent American history.

Using his new book about Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 bid for the presidency, “The Last Campaign,” as a starting point, Clarke crafted a narrative of a decade whose upheaval and turbulence mirror that of the present.

“When I do these micro-histories,” said Clarke, the author of 10 nonfiction books and one novel, “I like something that has a reach into the present.”

About 50 students attended the event, a Master’s Tea hosted by Branford Master Steven Smith.

Clarke told a story of the Kennedy campaign that drew frequent parallels with the 2008 presidential election — a story he often peppered with anecdotes of his Yale years, when he knew both Sen. John Kerry ’66 and President George W. Bush ’68. Although he focused on his new book and its inspiration, Clarke also reflected on the current war in Iraq and on his career as a writer.

After publishing his book, “Ask Not,” about John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech in 2004, he was reluctant to write another book about the Kennedys, Clarke said. But one day, as he was researching the elder Kennedy, he came across a speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in inner-city Indianapolis on the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

That night, Clarke said, he read the speech aloud at a dinner party in Boston. “There was not a dry eye,” he said, adding that “the younger people” — mainly students — “were the most moved.” The emotional response to Kennedy’s speech inspired Clarke to write his latest book.

“You read something that grips you and you say, ‘I’ve got to do this book,’ ” he said.

Clarke quoted the younger Kennedy brother throughout his talk, often opening his book and reading Kennedy’s remarks aloud with one uplifted finger. Although, he acknowledged, Kennedy had many enemies — “they were afraid of him because he was someone who meant to do what he said” — an outpouring of grief followed Kennedy’s assassination. Clarke sought to find out why Kennedy had such a powerful effect on people in “The Last Campaign,” he said....
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