RFK & My Grandfather: A Meditation on Political Heartbreak

RFK & My Grandfather: A Meditation on Political Heartbreak

Hey everyone — I’m still getting this newsletter thingy fully set up. It’ll take a few days, but in the meantime I figured I’d send along this essay I wrote about political heartbreak — it seems timely. I had posted it on Facebook a little while back when I unearthed long lost photos of my grandfather and RFK. - D

In my family, there's a legend about my grandfather, and I want to share it with you, along with some photos.

Papa Mike arrived in America as a child when his family fled antisemitism in Russia. He grew up to help run industrial relations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when it recognized the largest collective bargaining unit in naval history. In other words, he was part of the government's efforts to vastly expand the middle class.

Papa Mike was a Democrat -- we heard stories about how he wept when Adlai Stevenson lost. We also heard this one oft-repeated story about how Robert Kennedy broke his heart.

At Thanksgiving dinners and Passover seders, this particularly fascinating tale was about RFK allegedly coming to the Navy Yard promising to protect the workers' jobs. This tale's mythical talisman was an alleged photo of my grandfather and RFK that he supposedly tossed away in anger when he felt RFK had failed to prevent the closing of the Navy Yard.

As we face the prospect of a Great Depression, and as I've struggled with my own feelings of sadness, I've been thinking a lot about Papa Mike and so I took some quarantine time to see if I could actually confirm any of this. And today I did, thanks to photos buried in the Brooklyn Historical Society's online archive.

Yes, RFK did in fact campaign at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1964. And while I haven't yet found the photo of Papa Mike with RFK, the attached photos appear to show that yes my grandfather was right there at the rally (I love the slogan on the signs: "3 Boats Mean Votes").

Whether RFK was to be blamed or not for the closure, I don't know -- the historical society's website says the facility was closed "despite Kennedy's best efforts." I'm not trying to litigate that.

However, there's a larger point here: I can only imagine how heartbreaking it was for my grandfather and all the workers -- just as this era's mass layoffs will be heartbreaking for millions of workers. And in the face of that pain, suffering and heartbreak, we shouldn't begrudge anyone for feeling betrayed by our political system as a whole.

RFK ended up being a voice for the voiceless -- but he needed to feel Navy Yard workers' disillusionment and sadness, whether or not he was at fault. Likewise, politicians of both parties today need to feel that sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

Of course, Papa Mike didn't let his disillusionment undermine his values -- he remained a Democrat until he died. I periodically feel the same sense of disillusionment, but as the descendant of a man who spent his career working for workers, I try never to let the sadness undermine my principles, either.

But like my grandfather, I do know this: I don't care how famous or powerful they are, our elected officials work for us.

They need to feel constant pressure to do better.

An entire generation's future is at stake.

Don't give in to pressure to be silent, and don't bow to pressure to shut up and fall in line in the name of some Orwellian concept of "unity."

Make your voice heard.

Millions of workers' lives are on the line.

Rock the boat,

Sirota

P.S. I miss you Papa.

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